When you want a burrito in Houston, your choices aren't exactly limited.
There's Freebirds, Mission Burrito, Bullritos, Chuy's, Taqueria la Tapatia ... the options are endless. And then there's the corporate elephant in the room: Chipotle, with 23 locations in the Houston area and over 1,000 nationwide.
In the current food movement of keeping things slow, local and small, Chipotle seems at first the opposite. Most people think the brand is owned by McDonald's (it's not, although the company was a major investor for a few years), or franchised out (nope).
After all, Chipotle was one of the first major chains to make a commitment to organic ingredients, sourcing naturally-raised pork (raised on open pasture, with no antibiotics or hormones, and a pure vegetarian diet) from Niman Ranch starting in 2001 (before Eric Schlosser published Fast Food Nation and half a decade before Michael Pollan identified The Omnivore's Dilemma).
"[Chipotle founder] Steve Ells liked the story and loved how the pork tasted, very moist and flavorful, and he went to the commodity farms that had been supplying our pork and he was horrified by what he saw .... He didn't want his success or Chipotle's success tied to this kind of system," Chipotle communications director Chris Arnold says.
It's not just Chipotle customers that benefit. Chipotle serves more naturally-raised meat than any other restaurant company, and creating demand for pasture-raised beef, dairy cattle with no recombinant bovine growth hormone and antibiotic-free chicken has actually led to an increase in the number of farms who raise their animals in ways that are more natural and healthier.
"We're the only national restaurant company with commitments to local and organically grown produce, and by the end of this year all the cheese we use will be from cows that are raised on pasture," Arnold says. "It's set us in this direction of better, more sustainably raised food, and people seem to care increasingly about those issues."
As part of the chain's 18th birthday celebration, Chipotle started wrapping its burritos in gold foil in March to emphasize the chain's commitment to quality ingredients available "for an unlimited time only." There are also mini-Chipotle newspapers that detail the company's sustainable policies and an upcoming "wrap what you love" online competition for fans to wrap their favorite things in the leftover gold foil and submit them online for cash ($10,000) and prizes.
"We didn't do it at the time to be a marketing thing, we didn't do it at the time because there was this trend of more sustainable, we did it because it was the right thing," Arnold, says "and 10 years later we've accomplished a lot on that front."
Though local restaurants are what make a city's dining landscape great, is there room for a foodie to like Chipotle too? Obviously it doesn't matter — Chipotle's record of success says that they clearly make a product that people want.
But Chipotle's early commitment to healthy ingredients challenge all the foodie assumptions — that chains are by their very nature bad, that corporate food is a race to the bottom, and that movement towards healthy, sustainable, and local foods can only be accomplished at the local level.