For years, fast-casual chain Chipotle, founded in Denver in 1993, has been trying to eliminate artificial preservatives and additives that aren't part of recipes any home cook could replicate from a trip to the grocery store. The final obstacle to success has been the corn and flour tortillas that serve as the foundation for nearly every meal sold at the many Chipotle outlets nationwide. But that goal has finally been achieved, and the company has rolled out its new line of tortillas and chips across the country.
The effort began two years ago, according to Chipotle communications director Chris Arnold, with recipe tests to ditch dough conditioners and preservatives and studies of how to retool existing bakeries to handle a new line of products. "But really you have to go back even farther than that," Arnold notes. "The pursuit of better ingredients has been...part of our DNA since the very beginning. The removal of preservatives and dough conditioners is the latest step in that journey."
The new recipe for the flour tortillas contains only five ingredients: flour, water, non-GMO canola oil, salt and yeast. And the corn tortillas used to make the chips are even simpler, made with only corn masa and water. That's down by about a dozen ingredients — everything from non-GMO baking powder to distilled monoglycerides — in each.
The biggest challenge, Arnold explains, was not the recipe itself, but figuring out the manufacturing, packaging, shipping and storage of the new tortillas. Existing bakeries were updated to handle new recipes, and new packaging was created to minimize the danger of mold growth. The old tortillas could be stored at room temperature, but the new version need to be refrigerated, meaning that each store now must dedicate more space in its coolers, which affects how much inventory can be stored at each restaurant at any given time.
But customers care more about the burrito in their hands than about the logistics of delivering and storing tortillas, and Arnold says tests early in 2017 at select locations proved the changes in flavor and texture were virtually undetectable. "It's important that if there's a perception of change, that it's for the better. If anything, there's a pleasant, bready smell," he says of the moment when the tortilla is warmed as the first step in constructing burritos and tacos.
As for the ingredients in the other items on the company's menu, Chipotle founder, CEO and chairman Steve Ells says: “We never resorted to using added colors or flavors like many other fast-food companies do, simply because these industrial additives often interfere with the taste of the food."
Arnold adds that there are only a total of 51 ingredients used to make up every item on the menu, including everything that goes into the beans, rice, salsas, guacamole and meats.
Over the past two years, Chipotle has battled back against a drop in sales after several incidents of food-borne illnesses in 2015. Regaining a strong base of regular customers has been a big part of the company's recent focus, with loyalty rewards programs and other incentives designed to keep customers coming back. With the push to eliminate preservatives, Chipotle can once again focus on its ongoing mission of serving "fresh, high-quality raw ingredients, prepared using classic cooking methods." Chipotle will soon roll out a new marketing campaign aimed at just that. "The crux of that campaign is the quality of ingredients and the realness of the food," Arnold notes.