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As a small farmer, I need to sell the whole animal. So does the food industry, and it’s invented ingenious ways to do that by locating a steak house on one corner and a burger joint on the other. Between the two, the whole animal gets used. But fast food, because of its volume and narrow-spectrum use, inherently creates a conundrum for local supply.
Our experience with the wonderful fast food restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill has really brought this home to me. This is one fast food outfit whose heart is definitely in the right place. They keep pushing the envelope on local sourcing and ecologically friendly food. Using traditional long- and slow-cooking techniques, open kitchens, and integrity sourcing, their innovations have created quite a stir in the fast food industry.
In full disclosure, our farm has been the pork supplier for their Charlottesville [Va.] restaurant since 2008 and for their Harrisonburg [Va.] location since it opened in 2010. I think explaining a bit of this story might help put things in perspective. By the time Chipotle approached us about being a supplier, our farm was servicing some 30 restaurants – mostly white tablecloth – in western and central Virginia. In short, we are a large player in the local food sourcing scene.
When Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle, first visited our farm, he really wanted the pastured chicken. But when we figured up how many chickens it would take to supply just one restaurant, it totaled some 2,000 per week because they only use dark meat. It’s juicier than the white. We would have had to find another outlet for the breasts. And of course they wanted a steady supply year-round. Pastured poultry on a foot of snow when the temperature is zero is not a good combination. And the chicken for Chipotle would need to be deboned, and processed under federal inspection. This kind of service is not available in our area – at least to operations like ours. Too many hurdles. Forget the chicken.
After realizing the difficulty with chicken, our attention turned to pork. Here again, the narrow buying spectrum raised its ugly head: only shoulders and a volume of 300-500 pounds a week. That was out of our range because it would require 12 to 18 hogs per week. And we would have to move the rest of the pork elsewhere. I suggested that they try our hams along with the shoulders, to see if a blend would still be juicy enough.