Parsing the complicated realities of Chipotle and In-N-Out.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Chipotle is good. And I’m not talking about taste, though they’ve earned Best Burrito from our readers (with no help from me, as I’d vote for 10 other spots first). I’m talking good like on their game.
The latest of its 1,100-plus outposts starts serving its “food with integrity” in Sand City today. Because teenagers and military are drawn to Chipotle like ravenous ants to a picnic, that makes me a lil’ weepy for nearby local taco shacks like Baldimero’s (899-2231) and Papa Chano’s (393-9133).
But should I be sad? Ain’t that capitalism? Does it matter that they’re a corporation?
One more key question. Call it the Wal-Mart Organic conundrum: Is it inherently possible (and desirable) or impossible (and oxymoronic) to have large-scale sustainable food outlets?
To arrive at an answer I sat down with Weekly reporter Sara Rubin, whose previous gig was as a research coordinator for Chipotle’s local produce sourcing initiative (the Sand City Chipotle sources cilantro and romaine lettuces from Taylor Farms in Salinas and jalapeños from Abbate Farms in Merced), and had the brand’s Bay Area marketing chief by to serve our staff some of its increasingly pasture-raised, antibiotic-free meats and synthetic hormone rBGH-free cheese (key word: increasingly). It was an illuminating endeavor. Here’s a little of what I learned:
• The only way sourcing better ingredients in large amounts is possible to begin with is their very simple, focused menu: rice, beans, lettuce, pork, etc., because that allows for great attention to detail. But because product consistency is king, varying inputs is slippery. Organic beans, for example, since they’re smaller, cook differently and cost more, complicate things. Organic flour is a nonstarter because it creates blisters in their precise, replicable recipe. But a bell pepper contract might give a mid-sized family farm a boost.
• McDonald’s does not own Chipotle, and never did – though McD was invested in it for a while (fueling serious growth). That ended when Chipotle went public.
• Founder Steve Ells dreamed of opening a little French restaurant, but found inspiration in S.F.’s Mission District taquerias, built a menu and promptly blew the hell up.
• Denver is where he launched, and where the chain continues to test everything from brown rice (took too long to cook/looked dirty) to compostable forks (not pointy enough).
• The guac is seemingly the pride and joy of everyone involved, made fresh perpetually from California avocados in huge batches until the off season comes and Chipotle turns to Chile.
• It is nice that a fast-food joint even had a position like Rubin’s. Since she’s left, though, it hasn’t been filled.
•Progress is slow. Consciousness ain’t always easy, Chipotle reminds us. Fortunately Chipotle is pushing progress (though they might be marketing that push more than actually pushing). So, if you have to get your food from a fast food corporation (which sounds a little like, “if you have to get into a drug… ”) this is the smack you want.
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In-N-Out’s got Seaside City Councilman Dennis Alexander feeling sick. No, not because the high school teacher took on a student challenge to suck down an animal style 5X5, but because he feels his city is blowing a chance to bring a cash cow to pasture.
The council recently voted 3-2 to reject In-N-Out’s request for more time to reach an exclusive negotiating agreement, a standard step before build-out.
Hmmmm. Doesn’t seem like the brightest idea to sour the milkshake of what could be an immediate top-20 income generator – the planned site is on Del Monte between Del Monte Produce and Holiday Inn Express – and a joint which has generated more buzz among my readership than any eatery-to-be this side of Restaurant 1833. (Googling “I love In-N-Out” nets 325 million results; “I love God” gets 525,000.)
I called Mayor Felix Bachofner to better understand his vote. “It’s absolutely the wrong spot for an In N Out,” he said. “But I’m not against In N Out.”
He cites tricky visibility and wants to revisit a hotel project that was “just shy of construction” when he was on the Planning Commission a decade back.
“Seaside’s already the fast food capital of the Peninsula,” he said. “Having In-N – Out at the gateway to Seaside isn’t ideal.”
Water’s also an issue that’s held up In-N-Out, predictably enough. But bigger questions stalk any proposed hotel given the property’s place in the Coastal Commission’s purview.
The agreement could still be completed by the onrushing deadline, of course, and Bachofner just met with In-N-Out’s V.P. of real estate this week, so this potato’s not fried yet. Stay tuned.
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I made it by the new Mi Pueblo (www.mipueblofoods.com) for some hot food the other day. The produce and meats and even tequilas were impressive, but the tacos were mediocre at best. In a related nibble, Seaside’s Mi Tierra (394-8113) – my spot for the best al pastor and chorizo tacos in town – now has fish tacos… “The belly,” goes the Spanish proverb, “rules the mind.”