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Restaurant praised for its all-around sophistication

Observer Scene | Thursday, September 21, 2006

Everyone knows about Chipotle and everyone knows that one is going to open on Main St. this Friday. However, not everyone may know that the founder, Steve Ells, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and New York University. The beginnings of Chipotle are the stuff that dreams are made of – fast-food dreams anyway. Offering high quality food in a hip environment quickly and inexpensively, Chipotle has raised the bar in terms of what American fast food should be.

Chipotle first opened its doors in Denver, Col. in 1993. This may not have been the first restaurant to market the idea, but it was the first to open to floodgate on the concept “quick gourmet.”

Ells, a classically trained chef, shifted the focus of fast food from lightening speed to fresh ingredients – nothing frozen or processed, food made in front of the customer and a simple, yet highly modifiable, menu. The effort to bring freshness to the world at large in the form of a huge burrito is paying off in spades. By 2003, Ells had gone from one restaurant to over 450 in 21 states.

Focusing on sophistication, a discerning taste and environmental awareness, Ells has tapped into the American consciousness. The restaurants themselves, while no two are the same, focus on what has been called “cantina moderne.” Burnished steel, wood, unadorned light fixtures and general cleanliness are the marks of the Chipotle restaurants. This is not the Taco Bell that was built in two days and is never cleaned – this is a restaurant that takes pride in the food it serves and how it is served to the customer.

Not only is the interior of the store detailed and unique, but the sources through which Chipotle obtains their meat products is focused on an attitude that takes the environment very seriously. Every batch of carnitas pork is from a small family farm, which practices humane animal husbandry and farming techniques not harmful to the environment. There are now more than 220 family farms allowing their porcine livestock to roam, root and follow natural instincts while eating a vegetarian diet of grains and grasses. Sows are allowed to make pens themselves and no hormones or antibiotics are used. Also, their waste is reused to fertilize crops instead of becoming environmental toxins.

In response to this, environmental groups, such as the Animal Welfare Institute based in Washington, D.C., has given credibility to methods used by the farms, which supply Chipotle its pork. Alongside its pork, Chipotle has been trying to do the same with its chicken and beef. Over half of the chicken and a third of the beef comes from naturally raised environments and Chipotle is trying to get those numbers higher.

All this talk about meat has left out a significant portion of America – vegetarians. Chipotle has an answer for this. Ells recognized that many restaurants would tout a certain dish as vegetarian when in fact it contained hidden animal products. Chipotle does not include any hidden ingredients and, as said before, the product is made in front of the consumer. The tortillas are made with vegetable oil instead of lard and the rice and beans have no animal products used during their preparation. Take these three ingredients and add a vegetarian salsa for a wholesome and filling vegetarian meal.

The Chipotle opening soon will be a welcome addition to the South Bend area. It brings high quality food without leaving a large dent in your wallet. Customers can also sleep soundly knowing that the food they get was prepared without hidden ingredients and, for the most part, procured from places where environmentally sound farming is practiced. Sophistication, great tastes and social consciousness are the trademarks of this new brand of American fast food.