Niman Ranch, which was sold to Natural Food Holdings in 2006, has since been labeled a "zombie brand" by a handful of critics. Do you feel as though Niman Ranch's products have been compromised under Natural Food Holdings' management?

I certainly wouldn't call it a "zombie brand." Niman Ranch has become more mainstream and it's grown significantly in scale, but we continue to value what they do and purchase products from them. They realized founder Bill Niman's mission, a mission we have in common, to change the way animals are raised and food is produced in this country. What's so great is that other giant food companies are now doing what Niman, and only a few others, were doing a decade ago. This makes it possible for more and more people to have access to meats raised in a better way.

Considering the immeasurable volume that Chipotle does, how are you able to source from responsible farmers and ranchers that can accommodate such high demand?

Steve Ells is no stranger to the kitchen.
Steve Ells is no stranger to the kitchen.

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It's difficult to do. There is no switch you can throw to serve all organic, natural or local food — at least not with our size. But we've been willing to start small and build up over time. It took us about ten years to get to the point of serving all naturally raised meat, but we thought it was important to do, so we made the commitment and then built a system to enable us to do it over time. We're taking a similar approach with other ingredients, but it takes focus and discipline.

Kansas farmer and rancher Mike Callicrate, who owns Ranch Food Direct, contends that Chipotle refuses to accept livestock treated with antibiotics in cases where antibiotics are necessary to treat illness. "Under Chipotle's 'never-ever-not-to-buy' protocol, animals treated with antibiotics, whether responsibly or for treatment, or irresponsibly, for sub-therapeutic use, must be removed from its program, leaving Chipotle mostly buying meat from animals with false affidavits and/or far cheaper meat from the big industrial packers," insists Callicrate. What's your response?

Let me start by saying that we absolutely believe that sick animals should be treated with antibiotics. But, under our protocols, they'd have to be removed from our program. In the case of Callicrate, our audits found that they weren't adhering to our protocols, so we had to terminate our relationship with them, but it's nonsense to suggest that others aren't meeting those requirements. Antibiotics are a very serious issue in livestock production, and they're significantly overused. In fact, about 80 percent of all antibiotics used in this country are used in the raising of livestock, including in sub-therapeutic ways to stimulate growth and keep animals from getting sick. There's a very real concern that their continued overuse will lead to a proliferation of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs," and that could pose a very serious health threat to humans and animals. Antibiotic use has become a substitute for good animal husbandry. If you raise animals the right way, you really don't need to give them antibiotics.

What's the future like for sustainable farming?

I think the future is bright, although there are many challenges that we're facing right now and will continue to face as we move forward. What's heartening is seeing some of the best minds in this country focusing on food issues, especially in the context of sustainability. The fact that young people are questioning agricultural and environmental practices makes me hopeful about the future.

Considering that McDonald's uses inferior products and you're a big proponent of all-natural, organic and sustainable ingredients, I'm curious as to whether you have any regrets about that now-defunct partnership.

I'm thankful for the seven-year relationship that I had with McDonald's. Their investment in us allowed us to expand our reach in a relatively short time period, but I think we both realized that we had very different and distinct cultures, and that going our separate ways would be better for both of us. They have had no interest in Chipotle since shortly after our IPO, in 2006.

By and large, Chipotle's menu has remained stagnant since its inception. Are there future plans to evolve the menu?

The menu continues to evolve in terms of how we source our raw ingredients. As we continue to buy better products and source more sustainably raised ingredients, our food continues to taste better. This is one reason why people continue to come back again and again. I think that's really the right kind of menu innovation for us.

What's the secret to wrapping a perfect Chipotle burrito?

It really is an art that our crews continue to perfect. They would all tell you that the only way to perfect it is to practice.

When you eat in a Chipotle — assuming you do — do you table-hop to get guest feedback? What's the best feedback you've ever gotten from a guest in terms of advice?

I eat at Chipotle quite often; I love it. But when I'm in the restaurants, I tend to spend more time with our managers and crews, if I can. I like to see how things are being done, find out how the crews are doing and what we might be able to do to help them be more efficient. For those of us who aren't working in the restaurants, that's our primary job — to help the restaurants run better. But I do like to hear what customers think about our restaurants, and I definitely get a lot of feedback. I always appreciate that.

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I liked Chipotle for a long time. It was reasonably priced, fresh and tasty. But when they crossed a certain price point it wasn't worth it anymore especially considering the many real Mex joints there are in the region I live (SoCal).


I can't believe it's been 20 years since I laid eyes on my first JUMBO BURRITO at Twist & Shout on South Pearl Street. I remember the open foil and porno-sized burrito with a couple of bites out of it, I blurted "WHAT IS THAT?" Went down the street to Evans and got my own.

Chipotle is still my favorite of the Big Burritos.


'All of Chipotle's locally grown produce comes from within 350 miles of the restaurants where it's served.'

While I commend Ells for his commitment to locally sourced produce, a 350 mile range is far, very far, from being truly considered 'locally grown'. 


What I love most about Chipotle is that the meat is from humanely raised animals.  It is the only place I will eat pork.  Factory farms are hell on earth for animals and I refuse to support them.  I think Chipotle should stress more often their choice of meat suppliers and why (I've seen it written on their paper cups and heard about it on Oprah's show).  Everything I've ever eaten at Chipotle is tops in flavor and freshness, and I believe a reverence for the life of the animals we eat plays a big part in this.   


I am proud of the success of home-grown Chipotle, and my wife, three kids and I eat there at least twice a month. And I believe Steve is a visionary. But he's a boring interview. 

I understand that "sustainable ingredients" is a Chipotle corporate key message, but using it in nearly every answer makes it just sound tired, and saps its meaning. I wish he had an interesting anecdote or two to share, specifically when Lori asked about the best customer feedback he's received, or what his worst trait is, or something he would have done differently. 

Although he was surprisingly open about the lawsuit and immigration questions.


Steve actually had a wonderfully creative(and trusting) contractor who found a way to get his first restaurant open on his $40,000 construction budget, coming up with quite a few of the solutions still carried out today: the corrugated metal, bare light bulb fixtures, plumbing pipes for counter legs, etc. It was exciting working with Steve and I was proud to be involved in the beginning of what turned out to be a  wonderful adventure for him. Still waiting for that bonus.

davebarnes topcommenter

"When are you bringing ShopHouse, your Southeast Asian fast-food concept, to Denver?"

He did not answer the question and you let him get away with that.


@caseyryank9 Considering how much corporate produce is brought in from Chile, 350-miles is getting closer to ideal.

LoriMidsonCafeSociety moderator editor

@davebarnesHe answered it when he said: "We aren't getting into detailed expansion plans at this time. That said, we're excited about the prospect, as we think the people in Denver would understand and appreciate ShopHouse just like they do Chipotle." 

davebarnes topcommenter

You asked "When?" and he said "aren't getting into".

I would have asked "when" over and over again until he caved. But, I am tenacious.