Fast food often means a cheap, greasy burger and french fries. Struggling to cover monthly expenses, students may take the cheap, often less nutritious fast food meal over a wholesome one. However, Chipotle thinks of itself as a quick service restaurant that does not force students to sacrifice quality to save money.
Nearly 10 years ago, Niman Ranch, a natural meat company supplied by a network of over 600 traditional farms and ranches, began to provide Chipotle with naturally raised pork, making it Chipotle's first purveyor of naturally raised meats.
According to Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, flavor comes first.
""When it passes that test, then [come] the issues of how is it raised, all the ... health issues that are attributable to the various ingredients,"" Niman said. ""Then there is the sustainability from an environmental and community point of view.""
Serving naturally raised meats is part of what Chipotle founder Steve Ells calls ""Food with Integrity."" Niman said Chipotle uses standards of quality that it applies to each menu item.
""[Food with Integrity] is Steve's vision to do everything humanly possible in his business to provide delicious, wholesome and healthful food at an affordable price that everybody in the country will have access to,"" Niman said. ""There are a lot of buzz words, including ‘sustainability' and ‘green' and ‘humane.' Food with Integrity is the scripture of all those things wrapped into one.""
Founded by Ells in 1993, Chipotle pursues the feat of serving an all-natural menu.
In the meat category, as defined by Niman, naturally raised meat comes from animals that are free of antibiotics and added growth hormones, fed a vegetarian diet and humanely raised. In addition, the animals live in sufficient space to move around.
""The pork is almost exclusively from farms that don't raise their animals in confinement,"" Niman said. ""The pigs have access to pastures or barnyards, which is dramatically different from the 95-99 percent of the pork produced in this country today.""
In addition to 100 percent naturally raised pork, Chris Kelley, general manager of the Chipotle on State Street, said every Chipotle serves 100 percent naturally raised chicken as well. On Chipotle's additional efforts to serve Food with Integrity, Kelley said all the sour cream and cheese purchased by Chipotle is made with milk from cows that are not given recombinant bovine growth hormone, a hormone that stimulates milk production but, according to critics, can have negative health effects on cows.
Although Chipotle serves 100 percent naturally raised pork and chicken, only about 40 percent of its beef is naturally raised. According to Niman, Chipotle experiences supply challenges in its efforts to serve 100 percent naturally raised beef because not enough is yet available to meet its needs. Additionally, only 30 percent of Chipotle's black bean supply is organic.
Along with naturally raised meats, Chipotle purchases locally grown produce when it is available.
""In late summer and early fall, a majority of Chipotle's produce is locally grown, purchased from Wisconsin and nearby states rather than from states across the country,"" Kelley said.
Niman currently serves as the sustainable agriculture advisor for Chipotle. He said he helps the company stay aware of where the food is coming from.
Niman describes himself as an advocate of humane animal husbandry because he says he supports treating animals with dignity and respect. To benefit animals and the environment, he said he is returning to farming practices used in this country 40 to 60 years ago.
""Animals were actually living on the landscape and on the land,"" he said. ""I began my farming in a traditional way, which allows the animals to thrive, and created an environment that wasn't altering the land unnecessarily [or] in an overly negative way.""
The reincorporation of natural habitat into the food production system provides animals with scenery different from that of animals on the larger, conventional operations called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Because those farms house thousands of animals, the animals often live in smaller spaces. The quality of food from CAFOs is a source of debate between supporters of natural production methods and those of conventional ones.
According to Bill Bruins, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, quality is present in both conventionally produced and naturally produced food.
""The question really isn't ‘Is better quality food produced on a large farm or a small farm?'"" Bruins said. ""It depends on the operator himself or herself as to the quality of the product, not the production method or size of the operation.""
UW-Madison senior Andrew Hoffman, a soil science major pursuing a career in agronomy, said although he supports organic operations, a need exists for new technologies and modern operations.
""I don't see anything wrong with conventional farms, because the world population is rising and will eventually double, while the amount of productive land in the world will not,"" Hoffman said.
Bruins supports conventional operations because of their impact on the economy.
""CAFOs are hugely important from an economic standpoint for providing consumers with safe, very affordable, very high-quality food,"" he said.
Considering the different farming methods, Monica Theis, UW-Madison food science professor, said some people eat organic foods to be more environmentally conscious.
""[Chipotle is] responding to a consumer movement that is genuine,"" Theis said. ""I personally advocate for being good stewards of the land, and from the best of my knowledge, that is the spirit of organics.""
Kelley said the organic trend seems to have grown more popular since some Chipotle locations began serving naturally raised pork in 2000.
Organic means purity to UW-Madison sophomore Katrine Colton. An environmental advocate, she said she eats organic foods because it promotes the wellness of humankind and the earth.
""I value my health above all, and only the purest and most wholesome foods will promote health. Also, organic food is produced with the consumer, the processing of the product, and the land in mind,"" Colton said. ""Since we as humans share a common environment, we must be conscientious to keep it as pristine as possible for each other and generations to come.""
According to Kelley, the Food with Integrity efforts are also seen in actions such as recycling and employee interactions.
""Something that we look for in the people we hire [is] to be passionate about what we're doing,"" Kelley said.
Kelley said customers have a variety of incentives for eating at Chipotle, adding that although its competitor Qdoba is merely a block away, people choose Chipotle because of the quality of its food.
UW-Madison senior Chris Mayer, who has worked at Chipotle since April, said Chipotle's open kitchen proves the food quality to its customers.
""We prepare it in front of the customers so they can see how fresh it is,"" Mayer said. ""If you can see us preparing the food, there is nothing we are hiding.""
Kelley added that customers also eat at Chipotle because they receive a substantial amount of food for nearly the same price as they would pay at similar quick service restaurants.
""The best thing about it is just because it is high-quality food, we still don't have to skimp and give less, you still get a lot of food,"" Kelley said.
According to Niman, Chipotle's transition to an all-natural menu is a continuing process.
""One of the things [Steve Ells] always says that is very true is that it's a process and it's still going, but we've made some huge strides,"" Kelley said.
However, although Chipotle is working toward supplying more natural foods, it is clear that the process is ongoing.