It seems a little circular that the biggest and earliest restaurant chain to adopt and tout the buy-local mantra has to push restart on its produce buying. Chipotle is one of the pioneers of the farm-to-table movement as part of its “Food with Integrity” tagline, but in November 2015, the chain wiped its website clean of local-buying messaging and replaced it with a statement about its long-term supplier relationships. Now, they are three days way from ceasing operations in all US locations for a one day period, in part, to discuss how employees can improve food safety.

Chipotle may have unwittingly created monsters out of its customer base when it went anti-big-agriculture with its publicized ideals. In Mintel’s Healthy Dining Trends US 2015 report, Mintel asked US consumers, “If you are choosing a healthy meal, what restaurant menu descriptors are important to you?” The survey revealed that one quarter of Americans agree “local” is important to them.

With Chipotle customers in nine states becoming sickened with E. coli, “local” clearly doesn’t always equate with healthy. The chain temporarily closed 43 locations in Washington and Oregon, and the financial fallout is likely to affect Chipotle’s bottom line for the next year.

One quarter of Americans agree “local” is an important menu descriptor when choosing a healthy meal

When buy-local first began, those in the commercial produce industry groaned, particularly in California, where much of the produce that feeds the country is grown. The emerging trend became the topic of produce trade association workshops. It seemed obvious to the “big ag” industry that food safety would be sacrificed.

No large retail or foodservice buyer would even consider purchasing produce without assurances of a well-executed Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, they believed. Such a program identifies and controls potential hazards in food production. The goal is to control major food risks like microbiological, chemical and physical contaminants.

But the foodservice drive for local produce mounted. It required broadliners and grower marketing conglomerates to step in and provide buyers with local options or lose business. They rose to the challenge, and the distribution system changed forever – with or without stringent HACCP programs.

For its part, Chipotle is reigning in its local produce buying. The company came clean with the statistic that only 10% of its produce is sourced locally – now defined as sourced within 350 miles versus its former 200-mile standard.

In the wake of its food safety issues, the popular fast-casual restaurant claims to have “elevated requirements for all of our produce suppliers (chiefly in the area of testing of ingredients), and we are not sure that all of the current local suppliers will be able to meet those elevated protocols,” according to company spokesman Chris Arnold in an interview with Bloomberg. Additionally, some of the produce preparation is now being handled off-site at a central kitchen to better control and streamline operations, going against what the company believed a year ago. That is, washing and chopping tomatoes in a dicing machine at unit level tastes better.

In spite of this public food safety example, some operators, especially independent restaurant owners/chefs, may never retreat to healthy skepticism of a supplier’s food safety practices. When using local ingredients and products, these chefs are relying on consumers believing they are supporting the restaurant and the local market. Without the perception that they’re supporting the local economy, consumers may feel less of a connection to the restaurant.

While this new-age ethos is naive to food safety, it is inline with growing consumer sentiment. In fact, Mintel research reveals that three in 10 Millennials say they eat foods that are sustainably raised – an ideal in step with local farming.

The love of local is too widespread to turn back any time soon. With all gears in motion – from consumer demand, to operator compliance and marketing, to a now well-developed distribution system – local is likely here to stay, in spite of an occasional E. coli outbreak. But perhaps Chipotle hit on the key lesson: a restaurant can still have ethical moorings, even while pushing back from safety-unverified suppliers, by simply switching to a “grower-relationship” message – even if that grower is outside local boundaries.

Paul Pendola is the Director of Foodservice at Mintel, where he oversees Foodservice Reports and Mintel Menu Insights. He has over 30 years of foodservice operations, business and client development and research experience.

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