Now that you all have had a chance to watch The Scarecrow and form your own opinion about it, I want to revisit why I am on the fence when it comes to Chipotle.
Most of the time the local food movement feels like a David vs. Goliath battle. Big Food and Industrial Ag have all the money and the power. They have the government in their back pocket. They have convenience, cost, and variety on their side. And they are on a mission to squelch the local movement.
It is comforting to have major players like Chipotle and Whole Foods on the little guy’s team, at least in theory. The question is how helpful are they? I’m not sure.
Chipotle and Whole Foods are large chains. While their stated ideals align with the local food movement, in practice they have a lot more in common with Big Food than they do with truly local places like Kimberton or the Wyebrook Café.
Let’s talk about Chipotle. Chipotle is a multinational corporation with nearly 1,500 stores across the US, Canada, France and the U.K. They have built their reputation on serving “food with integrity” from “naturally raised” animals. They have trademarks on both of these phrases. They define naturally raised as “raised in a humane way, fed a vegetarian diet, never given hormones, and allowed to display their natural tendencies.”
(Do you feel all warm and fuzzy after reading that? If so, I hate to burst your bubble. Two of the three animals they source – chickens and pigs – aren’t actually vegetarians and don’t thrive on vegetarian diets. But that’s not what we’re here to discuss.)
If you look closely at the website, Chipotle admits that they sometimes cannot meet demand exclusively with meat that complies with their “naturally raised” standards. In these instances, they seem to have two options: stop selling that product until they can get meat that measures up or compromise their standards by using sub par meat. Guess which option Chipotle chooses? To give them some credit, they post notices warning their customers that there has been a shortage of chicken or beef or pork and because of that they’ve had to use conventional sources. But heaven forbid they take barbacoa off the menu for a few weeks! They might lose money and that might upset the stockholders. When we run out of pulled pork at Wyebrook, we run out. No one goes to to the grocery store to pick up another pork shoulder so we can meet demand. We politely recommend customers try a burger or sausage sandwich instead. Why can’t Chipotle do that?
Chipotle talks a lot about local sourcing. They do reach out to local farmers and try to source their meat regionally rather than nationally. As nice as this sounds in theory, it isn’t always practical. Their menu is limited and they only use certain cuts. For example, their carnitas are made from pork shoulder. That’s fine, but a pig only has two shoulders. An operation like Wyebrook would have to slaughter multiple pigs each week to meet the demand of just one Chipotle restaurant and would be left with an overabundance of hams, loins, lard, offal, and chops. For a small farm to make a profit on an animal, they need to sell the whole animal. Chipotle’s system doesn’t help here.
I will give them credit for trying. When they approached Joel Salatin & Polyface Farm about using Polyface pork, Salatin told them he couldn’t do it if all they wanted was the shoulder. They agreed to take the hams as well and incorporated them into their carnitas recipe (but only in restaurants that use Polyface pork). This meant Salatin didn’t have to slaughter as many animals each week and had less leftover product to move. But that’s one instance with one animal. The same complications apply to cows (Chipotle only uses about 20% of a cow) and chickens (they only use dark meat).
Sourcing produce locally is even more complicated. Their menu is set and doesn’t change based on season or location. You’ll find the same food in a Chipotle in Southern California in the middle of growing season as you would find in a Chipotle in Maine in January. This is where their national reputation is something of a hindrance. People see Chipotle as a fast food chain, not unlike McDonalds. Every McDonald’s sells Big Macs and French fries and McFlurries and because people see Chipotle as a comparable restaurant, they expect the same thing. According to the website, Chipotle sources its avocados, green peppers, tomatoes, cilantro and onions locally, but where do you find local avocados in Massachusetts in January? Yet you can still find guacamole in any Boston Chipotle because that is what people expect and demand. Instead of trying to educate their customers on what it means to eat locally and seasonally, Chipotle caters to their unrealistic expectations.
There’s nothing wrong with eating at Chipotle. I still do. Let me say that again: I eat at Chipotle. It is convenient, relatively cheap, delicious, and, if you are careful, decently healthy. But don’t be fooled by their fancy videos and catch phrases. Don’t think that by eating at Chipotle you are helping make the world a better place. Patronizing Chipotle to show solidarity with the local food movement is slacktivism, pure and simple. You feel good without having done anything to merit that feeling. It’s like tweeting an article condemning human trafficking and patting yourself on the back for your efforts. No one is better off for those few clicks of your mouse. No one has been helped.
Chipotle isn’t bad. They are trying and I applaud them for that. Is there more they could be doing? Absolutely. Is there more I could be doing? You bet. I’m happy to give them credit where they deserve it. But don’t set them up on a pedestal just because they made a 3-minute video that tugged at your heartstrings. See them for what they are: a multinational, fast-food restaurant whose ultimate goal is to sell more burritos. Once you embrace that reality, you can enjoy your burrito unencumbered by corporate, political and social agendas.