By Eileen Weber
Since 1993, Chipotle Mexican Grill has been a rapidly growing fast-food chain based on fresh, locally sourced ingredients, organic when possible, and humanely raised. And, that growth has been exponential. In 2000, Chipotle storefronts numbered 300. Today, they are four times that many with over 1,200 stores across the U.S. and in Toronto, Canada and London, England. Now, there’s one in Fairfield that opened a little over a month ago.
If you don’t know the back story on Chipotle, here’s a brief synopsis: CEO Steve Ells, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, fell in love with the food from the taquerías in the San Francisco Bay area. Looking to recreate that fresh-made, spicy Mexican fare, he opened his first Chipotle Mexican Grill in Denver, Colorado in a former Dolly Madison ice cream shop.
Ells’ twist on the taquería is making fast food—or what has been coined as “fast casual”—based on fresh ingredients from local farms using sustainable agricultural habits. This is Ells’ “Food with Integrity” campaign. Chipotle makes a point of working with farmers that treat their animals and their workers well. (Chipotle works closely with Joel Salatin and his Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia. For those familiar with the documentary Food, Inc., Salatin was highlighted for raising his pigs humanely in a natural environment, or rather allowing them to be pigs in all their “pigness.” When his pork is available for use in local Chipotles, the lines are around the block.)
Because of that attitude about food and how it is raised, Chipotle’s revenue has increased by nearly 25% in the last year. “Chipotle’s focus is on running great restaurants, serving great food, and developing a people culture that is giving us better people all the time,” said Chris Arnold, Director of Communications at Chipotle. “If we do those things, the business will be strong, and the stock price should reflect that.”
Sounds good, right? Yes, it is. But there’s a little bit of a catch. When this site’s editor and writer called the store here in Fairfield that recently opened, we got more than a fair share of corporate run-around. The store’s manager was a little elusive and deferred to company public relations. Company public relations answered questions initially, but not follow-ups. And when individual farms were mentioned as places Chipotle did business with, one in particular, Frank Donio & Sons out of Hammonton, NJ, said they had no record of supplying them. They only deal with a supplier to Chipotle.
After repeated attempts, we also were unable to contact the owner of Satur Farms on the North Fork of Long Island, another farm they listed as a supplier. When asked if we could contact other local farms they work with, we were given no answer.
The company prides itself on sourcing locally to the point of saying local tops organic as a priority. “Local is more important than organic,” said Katherine Newell Smith of KNS Promotions, Inc. in Bethesda, MD. Smith’s company is the public relations firm for the Northeast region. “We’re not 100% organic. We get it when we can, but it’s expensive. We can’t charge the customer for a $13 burrito.”
Smith said they try to source within a 100-mile radius but will go as far out as 350-miles if necessary. But what we found was that they are not as local as they seem. When we asked the manager at the Fairfield store where they got their humanely-raised chicken, we were told Springer Farms. The only farm we could find that matched that description was Springer Mountain Farms. They do raise chickens humanely—in Georgia. Not exactly local to Fairfield, is it?
Then again, local food is only as good as the growing season, particularly with vegetables. In this area, our growing season is relatively short in comparison to, say, California or Florida. Chipotle’s Chris Arnold said the company had about 50 participating farms around the country last year and expects more of the same for this year.
“At the moment, our local program isn’t providing much. (The growing season for most of the country is essentially June through October),” he said in a recent e-mail. “We aren’t getting local produce at this time in the Northeast. We will resume our use of locally grown produce as we get to spring and summer and the produce is widely available. But right now, the program is largely dormant.”
Aside from the bureaucracy, the food tasted like you would expect it to. We ordered the carnitas salad, three hard-shell corn tacos with chicken, steak, and barbacoa, and a chicken burrito with rice and black beans. The vegetables were clean and bright with no signs of bad spots or decay. They were chopped consistently and cooked well. The meat was also cooked well, although the steak was a little chewy. The barbacoa—spicy shredded beef—had a lovely, slightly smoky taste. The chicken tasted, well, just like chicken.
The only real “problem” was with the guacamole. We were given a side order that was not only brown on top but also throughout the rest of the cup. It was clearly oxidized before it was spooned into the ready-serve containers. While you could clearly identify its ingredients—avocado, red and white onion, cilantro, it seemed to be missing something. Salt? Lime juice, maybe? Jalapenos? For a Mexican joint, the guac should rock. This guac, however, barely shimmied. (Please note: When we asked for a new container of guacamole, we were given one without hesitation and with no brown spots.)
While the food is well prepared, the portions tend to be large. The burrito, for instance, is not exactly bite-sized unless you consider eating a Chihuahua in tin foil a snack. (One of their advertisements quipped, “Burritos so big you want to ride ‘em!” If that isn’t the truth.)
Although it is possible to get a high-fiber, low-calorie meal, don’t let that fool you into believing everything on the menu is a light alternative. According to a 2003 study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a typical Chipotle burrito with rice and beans has about 1,000 calories. That is the equivalent of two meals and has more calories than a Big Mac. The burritos are also high in sodium.
Even so, the ingredients are not filled with additives, food dyes, hormones or antibiotics. You will absolutely be eating a fresh product, no matter what you order.
For more information about their menu items and their policies, check out their web site at www.chipotle.com. The Fairfield location is at 340 Grasmere Avenue in the same complex as Whole Foods Market. The store is open Monday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Pop in, fax your order, or order online. Their phone number is 203-255-7665 and their fax is 203-255-7592.