Paying a Premium for Local Source at Chipotle? When the Product Doesn’t Cut It, Who Cares?

We used to be fans of our neighborhood Chipotle. But after near weekly pilgrimages from the office, we realized that the typical salt content of the meals, including the chips, seemed extremely high relative to other choices (even fast food), and found ourselves thirsty, to say the least. The salt at Chipotle may not be locally, organically or sustainably sourced, but just about everything else is, according to a recent story we came across. According to Triple Pundit, which quotes the founder, "The chain now serves only rBGH-free dairy products, and all of its pork meets its standards for hormone- and antibiotic-free, humanely raised meat, as does 100% of its chicken and 60% of its beef...The restaurant had a goal of using approximately 5 million pounds of local produce like bell peppers, oregano and romaine lettuce, and eventually plans to source more than 10 million pounds of local produce for its 1,100 locations."

Here at Spend Matters, we've been monitoring the notion of how consumers allocate dollars for Mexican food in the 'hood. Do they prefer to spend on "locally and organically sourced" food from a chain that cooks Mexican food with undocumented Mexican workers or do they prefer the real thing? That is, Mexican food from a local Mexican restaurant (where you don't ask questions about the labor or the tripe). It's a perfect comparison case in our neighborhood -- our local Chipotle is only a few doors down from our local Mexican dive, Buena Vista. And judging by the crowd trends of late at both (not to mention the above-linked Yelp ratings and commentary), Chipotle comes across as the clear loser.

This is probably not the news that Chipotle wants to hear. But consumers, when given the chance in a diverse and young urban neighborhood, appear to gravitate more to the truly "local" option even if the food might not be "locally" sourced. Besides, as believers in supplier diversity and allocating our own corporate restaurant lunch budget to small businesses, we'd rather support local immigrant entrepreneurs than a larger chain, even if we can't vouch for whether or not the chicken in that enchilada formerly roamed free or was constrained by shackles. Besides, at Chipotle, the salt levels make it difficult to detect any potential taste difference in meat or produce quality as well.

Jason Busch

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