One of the most locally sourced Chipotle restaurants in America is in Harrisonburg, Virginia, at a strip mall near James Madison University. At first glance, this Chipotle appears no different than any other suburban fast-food chain. It sits next door to a Verizon Wireless in the same parking lot as a Walmart Supercenter. But this venue offers something no other nearby chain does, let alone most Chipotle locations: Its pork is sourced from Polyface Farms, a family-owned operation just 45 minutes away.
Another Chipotle restaurant in the running for offering the most local food is in Homewood, Illinois, just south of Chicago. Here, in another mall plaza surrounded by a Best Buy and a Home Depot, this store’s carnitas, barbacoa, and steak are all shipped in from a site only seven minutes up the street. You can’t get much more “local” than that.
Chipotle customers inspired my investigation into how local the chain’s ingredients are. I spoke to scores of diners for this story, and discovered that many believe that Chipotle’s food is trucked in directly from local mom-and-pop farms just around the corner or not far in the countryside. After all, Chipotle markets itself as a provider of fresh, locally sourced ingredients. So during the course of my reporting for our new feature on Chipotle, which charts the company’s efforts to revive its business following a series of food-safety incidents, I wanted to learn where that food actually comes from. To do so, I talked with farmers, suppliers, supply-chain experts, and Chipotle executives to learn the truth.
The best example of this widely held belief—and likely one of the few—is that Harrisonburg Chipotle. Polyface Farms, where this store’s pork comes from, is approximately 650 acres of idyllic farmland in the Shenandoah Valley. It ships 300 to 400 pounds of pork each week directly to two nearby Chipotle restaurants, which braise the pork on-site and serve these carnitas to customers every day. One source involved in developing this Polyface relationship told me it was Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells’s “pipe dream of creating a hyper-local partnership.” There’s a reason why many considered it a pipe dream initially: At Chipotle’s scale, sourcing meat and produce locally is both a logistical and financial challenge. But having made the drive and sampled the Polyface-pork burrito, I can understand the justification: It tastes heavenly, perhaps even more so because of the farm-to-fork story behind how it arrived on my plate.
When I ask a crew member on my visit to the Harrisonburg location where Chipotle’s pork comes from, I expected him to cite Polyface. Rather, he tells me that all of Chipotle’s food at this restaurant comes from within 25 miles. I knew this couldn’t be true: Polyface, for one, is 40 miles away. Perhaps he meant all of the pork at this particular restaurant? No, all of the meat and produce, he explains: “All of it, all very local.” Even the avocados? “Well, not the avocados, I don’t know about the avocados,” he says. The avocados that Americans eat are typically grown in California and Mexico.
I can’t blame this employee or any customer who may have these misperceptions. After all, before I started reporting on Chipotle, I was basically in the same camp. Like most mainstream consumers, I didn’t exactly know the provenance of Chipotle’s food, but I had the vague impression that it was locally sourced from farms (whereas, say, McDonald’s food was shipped in from massive factories). That’s the primary reason I would often opt for dining at Chipotle rather than a typical fast-food chain: Simply put, I felt better eating Chipotle. Its “Food With Integrity” commitment to fresh and ethical sourcing of ingredients resonated with me and many other customers. A hallmark of Chipotle’s mission, in fact, is the company’s “local growers program,” an initiative whereby Chipotle tries to source as much produce as possible locally, which it defines as from within 350 miles of its restaurants. In 2015, for example, Chipotle reported to have sourced more than 30 million pounds of vegetables from these local suppliers, or about 10% of its seasonal produce purchases. To Ells, this local produce is always “fresher and better tasting.” Meat, in a way, has been a part of that Food With Integrity commitment, too: In the early aughts, the company began sourcing its pork from Niman Ranch, then a collection of around 70 independent hog farmers (it started purchasing pork from Polyface in 2007).
A significant portion of Chipotle’s advertising centers around the promise of fresh, local ingredients—or at least an aura of farm freshness. Its marketing often features imagery of Polyface-esque farms, such as its short animated film “Back to the Start,” which depicted an independent supplier realizing the value of ethical animal husbandry over the troubling nature of industrial-scale meat factories. (At Cultivate, the company’s food and ideas festival, merchandising tents even sell T-shirts with the Chipotle logo featuring slogans like “Family Farmed” and “Locally Grown.”) This farm-to-table image has bolstered Chipotle’s business over the years, positioning its brand in opposition to traditional chains such as McDonald’s. “We are changing the way people think about and eat fast food,” Ells has said. “That means pushing ourselves to find the best quality ingredients—ingredients that have traditionally been available only in high-end restaurants and specialty food markets—and making them available in a way that is accessible to really mainstream customers.”
Chipotle’s supply chain, though, reveals a different story. Niman Ranch, for example, is no longer an independent operation; it was acquired by the agricultural giant Perdue in late 2015. The company’s beef isn’t all from American cattle ranchers; much of it is imported from Australia. At least 90% of Chipotle’s produce comes from larger-scale suppliers, even more so when that produce is not in season. A substantial amount of its lettuce, for example, comes from Taylor Farms, one of world’s biggest salad producers and whose other customers include Burger King and Costco. Likewise, a large amount of Chipotle’s onions are purchased from River Point Farms, which also supplies Subway and Frito-Lay. Walk into a Chipotle today, and you’ll likely find crew members opening bags of pre-diced tomatoes or precooked steak, the latter of which they reheat on site and serve to customers fresh.
The second-most local Chipotle, then, may be the one based in Homewood, Illinois. All of its carnitas, barbacoa, and steak come from one of the company’s three largest “central kitchens,” Ed Miniat, which happens to be based up the street. Like other fast-food chains, Chipotle, for the sake of efficiency, heavily relies on this system of third-party facilities that precook and precut certain food items before shipping them off to individual Chipotle restaurants. Miniat, for example, processes 500,000 pounds of beef and pork each week for Chipotle, a sliver of which gets sent to this Homewood location. When I meet with Chuck Nalon, the president of Miniat, he tells me, “In my opinion, we’re no different than the family farmer. We just happen to not be a farmer, but I mean, we’re in the food business and we view the world the same way.”
I came away impressed with Miniat, but it is not a farm and its food is not local. This stoked my curiosity as to how Chipotle itself defined local when it came to things like its “local growers program.” The company was both inconsistent and not transparent in response to this line of questioning. Following the string of food-safety outbreaks the company experienced last year, including incidents related to E. coli and norovirus, founder and co-CEO Steve Ells tells me Chipotle cut its dependence on local producers. He first tells me this program declined from 60 family-owned farms down to around 20. Later, based on what Chipotle told me or through my independent reporting, the company’s local growers program peaked at “70 local, family-owned farms,” or “60” of these farms, or “50 to 60,” or just “50.” In terms of what this figure dropped to following the outbreaks, I’ve been told on separate occasions, “22 farms,” and “10 to 20 farms,” and “10 farms.” The company was not able to provide a sufficient explanation for these changing numbers.
I started to wonder which farms qualified to participate in this program. Does Taylor Farms, the massive salad producer, qualify if it’s within 350 miles of a Chipotle restaurant? Would lettuce that it sourced to that location count toward the 10% local, seasonal purchase figure? “I don’t think so,” Ells says. Co-CEO Monty Moran adds that the program is not really for large producers like Taylor Farms but promises to relay a specific answer. Following up by email with Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold, I ask again if lettuce sourced from Taylor Farms could qualify toward its local growers program if it provided lettuce to restaurants within 350 miles of its facilities. “Correct,” Arnold writes back. “Proximity is the determining factor for our local produce program, not farm size.”
After spending seven months studying Chipotle, it became apparent that the chain could be far clearer in how it defines the local ingredients it purports to serve. In many cases, the company does deserve credit for providing produce or meat from local or independent farmers. But because it is not fully transparent about the sourcing of its food and doesn’t name all of its suppliers, consumers (and employees) are often left to come to their own conclusions, often based on Chipotle’s marketing. Even at that one Harrisonburg, Virginia, restaurant, there’s no mention anywhere that Chipotle serves Polyface pork. “In my opinion, they should publish every supplier,” says Joel Salatin, Polyface’s owner. “How do you have integrity without accountability?” He contends that Chipotle engages in too much “corporate coyness.”
A number of sources familiar with Chipotle’s supply chain stressed to me that I was naive for ever buying into Chipotle’s local-sourcing program. It’s a clever, new-age tack, but it reflects Chipotle’s dreams, perhaps, and not the reality of its supply chain. One of these sources, who feels Chipotle has misled customers about Food With Integrity, even goes so far as to argue that the chain has become “a marketing company that happens to sell burritos.”
Chipotle defenders are quick to note how much better Chipotle is when compared with the highly processed and often frozen food that many of its competitors sell. They contend that Chipotle stands alone in its more premium category of “fast-casual” restaurants. “We do share some suppliers with other large restaurant companies,” Arnold says. “That does not mean we use the same ingredients or cooking methods.”
There’s no doubt that the company has had a positive impact on the fast-food industry, which has been forced to react to Chipotle’s fresh ethos. When I mention how McDonald’s is testing fresh beef in its burgers instead of using frozen patties, Ells at first gives a dramatic eye roll, but then says, “I applaud them for trying. There are also a lot of new fast-casual restaurants that I think are really brilliant, from the salad places like Sweetgreen to [the ones that serve] Indian or Asian food. [They] follow the Chipotle model. It’s really great.”
Sweetgreen, that growing fast-casual restaurant Ells referenced, publishes lists of its suppliers on a chalkboard at each location. On a recent visit to a store in Washington, D.C., near Dupont Circle, the company listed that its its kale comes from fifth-generation family-owned Richardson Farms, in Maryland, and that its apples come from 200 acres at Virginia’s Crown Orchards, among around 25 other seasonal ingredients and independent suppliers. Not all the items featured are local—some are sourced from California, Washington, and Texas—but it’s nevertheless immediately clear to customers where Sweetgreen’s food comes from. When I ask Ells why Chipotle doesn’t do this, he suggests it is because the company cycles through too many suppliers when compared to a company like Sweetgreen, which has approximately 50 locations versus Chipotle’s 2,000-plus stores. “When they start to expand, they’re going to have a lot more farms,” he says. Sweetgreen says that it already works with 250 farms around the country. So while it would be more complicated to keep a list of suppliers updated at each restaurant, a company of Chipotle’s scale and resources is fully capable of doing so.
If Chipotle chose to be as transparent as a chain like Sweetgreen, the results would clash with some of the implied promise behind Food With Integrity. At that Harrisonburg, Virginia, location, customers would enjoy learning that the pork they’re eating actually comes from a local farm a short drive south. But their lettuce could still come from Taylor Farms, and if they ordered beef, it might have been shipped overseas from JBS Australia.
How local and fresh would customers think Chipotle’s food is then?