Washington Restaurant Market Watch: Taking food standards seriously

Washington Restaurant Market Watch: Taking food standards seriously https://wahospitality.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/rest-kitchen388-388x198.jpg

By Paul Schlienz

Restaurants have always taken food standards seriously – as every restaurateur knows, it’s an essential part of doing business and providing a quality experience for the customer. Today, however, as customers become more health-conscious than ever before, many restaurants are taking food standards to a whole new level.

Chipotle Mexican Grill is a case in point.

This nationwide quick service Mexican chain is well known for its strict food standards. Chipotle exclusively serves meat without antibiotics or added hormones. Its pork comes from animals with access to the outdoors or deeply bedded barns with ample straw for them to sleep on.

Unfortunately for Chipotle, pigs raised in these conditions are only a tiny fraction of the U.S. pork supply. As a result, Chipotle searches farm-by-farm for its pork. The top pork processors in the U.S. make up 70 percent of domestic production and mostly don’t meet Chipotle’s specifications.

“We as farmers have always responded to what the market wants,” Chuck Wirtz, an Iowa hog farmer, told Bloomberg. “There are added costs to raise pigs that way. And up until recently, the market has not been willing to pay for that.”

This has resulted in the unthinkable for Chipotle: In January, carnitas burritos disappeared at hundreds of Chipotle outlets because the chain is not fully stocked with pork because it dropped a vendor. Indeed, the top U.S. pork processors that make up 70 percent of domestic production and do not meet Chipotle’s strict specifications at this time.

Chipotle’s high standards have also resulted in the chain running low on premium supplies of beef and chicken during the past year, forcing it to offer alternatives at some locations.

“We don’t know for sure when we’ll be fully supplied again,” Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, told Bloomberg. “For many years, we’ve been operating in a system where the primary food supply doesn’t meet our standards.”

Chipotle, of course, is not the only restaurant with high ethical standards when it comes to food sourcing.

The Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc. recently announced that it will switch to gestation-crate-free pork and cage-free eggs. Last month, McDonald’s also pledged to no longer serve chicken raised with certain antibiotics. Meanwhile, Starbucks recently announced that as of this year, 99 percent of its coffee will be verifiably sustainably produced and ethically sourced.

“Reaching our ethical sourcing milestone shows that it can be done,” Craig Russell, Starbucks’ executive vice president of global coffee, said in a statement. “We believe we are defining a sustainable way forward for our industry.”

Ethics, however, don’t always come cheap.

After a 6.3 percent price increase, continued shortages increase the likelihood Chipotle will have to boost its prices again. Customers, however, don’t seem to have a problem with paying a little more. Comparable-store sales, indeed, rose more than 16 percent during the fourth quarter.

“We keep making it work,” said Arnold.

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