Local Chipotle buys local

In a front page story in the Washington Post today, gourmet burrito chain Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has 700 stores nationwide, announced plans to begin using locally raised pork. And to the delight of local buy local fans, the company chose its Charlottesville restaurant in the Barracks Road Shopping Center as the place to begin (Of course, local Chipotle fans like real estate blogger Jim Duncan had already noticed). Working with Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia, which has been supplying produce to local restaurants for several years, Chipotle executives say they hope to serve 100 percent Polyface pork in the Charlottesville restaurant beginning this month.

"That's great news," says Melissa Wiley, who heads up the Piedmont Environmental Council's Buy Fresh, Buy Local initiative. "We hope it will inspire other local restaurants and chains, to show them what's possible."

Apparently, that's a tall order, as the Post reports that 350 pounds of pork get gobbled up at the Charlottesville restaurant everyday. According to the Post, Chipotle has been working with Polyface for 17 months on the arrangement, and dealing with the considerable hurdles of buying local.

Indeed, Nelson County pig farmers Richard Bean (photo left) and Jean Rinaldi were arrested last year for violating FDA regulations regarding the processing and labeling of their pork products, and an entire roasting pig that the South African restaurant Shebeen bought from them was destroyed on the spot with a bleach solution by agents with the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. In fact, Chipotle had originally thought of buying Polyface Farms chickens as well, but the slaughtering regulations were too strict. As it is, the company has had to invest in a temperature-monitoring system for Polyface's un-refrigerated delivering trucks to satisfy FDA regulations.

In addition, while Wiley would call a sudden Chipotle-inspired increase in buying local "a good problem to have," she worries that local farmers might not be prepared to meet demand. "There's a real lack of infrastructure in place," she says. "Farmers are going to need help with distribution, processing, and marketing." As she points out, there are hundreds of small farms in the area, but most are unequipped to provide produce in any kind of volume.

"There's a huge cost to doing things this way," Phil Petrilli, a Chipotle operations director, told the Post. "We're spending money to find out how and if we can bring small farmers with our values into the system."

Apparently, Chipotle is a restaurant chain with a social conscience. As we reported in January, Chipotle has already committed to a goal of serving 100 percent naturally raised meats, and last year the Charlottesville Planning Commission gave an award to Chipotle for extending its handicapped access across the access road at Barracks Road Shopping Center to the public sidewalk on Emmet Street, something the company was not required to do.