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Katie Schubauer/MEDILL

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. prides itself on serving healthy, sustainable ingredients.

Restaurants seek to satisfy growing hunger for sustainable options

by Katie Schubauer
Feb 19, 2014


Katie Schubauer/MEDILL

Chipotle's "Food With Integrity" campaign is featured on the company's website.


Katie Schubauer/MEDILL

Zoup is one of many restaurants  highlighting its ingredients to cash in on consumers' healthy preferences 

At the fast-casual eatery Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., “food with integrity is a journey.”

That’s part of the mantra appearing on the Denver-based restaurant’s website. It goes on to say the journey that will never end.

Chipotle, which prides itself on serving the freshest ingredients and being honest with customers, is one of the many fast food outlets tapping into consumers’ growing hunger to maintain a healthier lifestyle. The restaurants recognize that emphasizing sustainable ingredients attracts the healthier eater.

“All of the food that we’ve always used has been fresh and high quality, but that’s not enough,” said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “If you want to serve the best tasting food, you need to know how the animals are raised and how the produce is grown. And we simply believe people have a right to know what is in the food they eat.”

A study recently released by Technomic Inc. revealed that the majority of foodservice operators believe policies like sustainability allow them to stay competitive.

Even giants like McDonald’s are getting on board, especially after losing market share to chains like The Protein Bar, Freshii and Zoup. Recently, the multi-billion dollar fast-food chain announced it will purchase beef from only verified sustainable sources by 2016.

The decision was made despite the lack of a precise definition for “sustainable beef,” Bob Langert, McDonald’s Vice President of Global Sustainability, said in a recent interview with online journal GreenBiz.

Langer said he looks at all the trends each year, and the biggest trend he sees in terms of consumer concerns is “where does the food come from.

Dean Small, president of Synergy Restaurant Consultants in Laguna Niguel, Calif., said Millennials—who focus more on healthy lifestyles—are driving much of the demand for sustainable ingredients. He also noted sustainability is often associated with foods that are better for you.

“Consumers value sustainable food because it’s healthy, it’s more nutritious and more often than not it’s better tasting,” Small said. “They feel like it’s safer, too.”

Healthiness and sustainability are definitely factors Kathleen Przywara considers when choosing a place to eat.

“Sustainability is one of those things that’s easy to overlook when you’re looking for something quick and easy, but it’s definitely important,” said Pryzwara, 29, who lives in Lincoln Park. “It would be great if more restaurants had sustainable produce and ingredients.”

Chipotle spokesman Arnold agreed the trend is more prominent among Millennials, but said the company’s emphasis on ingredients benefits all customers.

“The reality is the decisions that we make are what enables us to have such good tasting food,” he said.

“When I think of healthy or sustainable food I associate it with higher quality,” said Kevin Siegel, a 21-year-old student at the University of Chicago. “I eat at Chipotle because I like the taste of the ingredients.”

But consumers’ demand for healthier food choices often comes with a higher price. Menu items that include naturally raised meats and fresh daily produce typically cost more. Arnold admitted Chipotle has one of the highest food costs (measured as a percent of revenue per day) of any restaurant company.

“Over the years, we have had to increase menu prices sometimes when we make the shift to better ingredients, chiefly our naturally raised meats,” Arnold said. “But we have seen that our customers are willing to pay a little more for food they recognize as being better.”

Restaurant consultants agree prices won’t deter health conscious consumers from paying a little bit more.

“It’s not a fad, it’s a trend,” Small said. “I believe that this is a trend that is going to continue and you’re going to see many more restaurants providing healthy options for their customers.”