Food costs at a restaurant are the most critical to the business’ bottom line. That’s why many restaurants cut corners and you’ll often find their kitchens piled high with nameless, low-quality ingredients to ensure they can mass produce meals at a value while still turning a profit. That’s not how it works at Chipotle though, where they say it’s “worth it to spend a little bit more.”
We spoke with Chris Arnold, PR director for Chipotle Mexican Grill, who told us Chipotle has some of the highest food costs in the restaurant industry. Even still, they are able to “invest more in quality food and still be very profitable.”
Chipotle just became the first American restaurant to work toward clearing its menu of all GMO foods, something that will equally drive food costs while improving quality. The company knows there will be cost implications, exactly how much at this time they can’t say, but it’s not uncharted territory for them. “Making decisions that result in higher food costs is nothing new to us,” said Arnold.
The brand was a supporter of Prop 37 last year, the California bill that aimed to require labeling of GMO ingredients on all foods sold in the U.S. It was then that the brand started to hold itself to the same standard it was asking of others. Arnold explained that their first move was purely disclosure, to let their customers know which foods had GMOs.
“We think people have the right to know what’s in their food,” said Arnold.
We agree with him, and so do most consumers. An ongoing study at Technomic.com found that 59 percent of consumers say it’s important that fast-casual brands are socially responsible. In the story, they even cite Chipotle’s “food with integrity” mantra. So it’s a natural transition for the brand to move toward eradicating its restaurants of the often debated GMO ingredients.
Arnold contends, as many will, that the jury is still very much out on the issue of GMOs with no clear scientific consensus. However, he, like many proponents of GMO labeling and bans, points out that many countries, including those in the European Union, Japan, Australia, and Canada, have placed strict bans or restrictions on GMO usage. The U.S. is still a hold out, but Arnold says Chipotle wants to err on the side of caution.
“We decided, until a consensus says this is all fine, we’d rather not have [GMOs],” he explained.
Currently, Chipotle’s beans, vegetables, and produce are GMO free. Where the GMOs still exist is most prevalent in the soybean oil, used in a number of ways including the rice, fajita vegetables, vinaigrette, chicken and steak marinades, and on the grill. As well, the corn flour in the tortillas and chips and the corn starch in the flour tortillas can still contain GMOs. Arnold also said they assume that some or most of the meat and dairy could still be GMO, because of the high probability that GMOs exist in their feed.
There is no timeline on going 100% GMO free, said Arnold, but that they “don’t expect it to be a long time before the GMOs are gone entirely.” Their first priority was on their own ingredients, those that they can directly control. They’re currently testing other oils in all of those aforementioned applications so they can phase out to a GMO-free oil.
When the restaurant disclosed its GMO ingredients this past spring, it became the first U.S. restaurant to do so, and Arnold admits they aren’t aware of any other restaurants trying to tackle the issue in the same way or at the same level that they are. Jason’s Deli and Panera Bread have certainly made big steps toward sourcing more organic or natural ingredients, but neither has made any announcement regarding GMOs on their menus.
Arnold speaks for the Chipotle brand in saying they hope more restaurants and supermarket foods will follow suit because it “gets easier to tackle when more people are involved.”