This month, Chipotle hopes to serve 100 percent Polyface pork in Charlottesville. But that success comes after 17 months of complex negotiations and logistics, including buying extra cooking equipment, developing new recipes, adjusting work schedules and investing in temperature-monitoring technology for Polyface's delivery van. In recent months, Petrilli has visited the Charlottesville outlet about every two weeks, four times as often as he visits other restaurants in the region.
Chipotle's experiment is emblematic of the enormous hurdles that face national chains hoping to embrace the eat-local trend that has until now been limited to exclusive restaurants and farmers markets. Food grown by small local farmers may taste fresher and require less fuel to transport, but the quantities rarely are large enough to sustain one busy restaurant, let alone hundreds. "We get calls all the time from individual farmers saying, 'I've got three pigs,' or 'two cows,' and there's nothing we can do with those quantities," says Ann Daniels, Chipotle's director of purchasing.
And yet, some regional chains and national food service providers are launching their own buy-local experiments. For some, like Chipotle, it fits their corporate mission. Others are driven by rising concerns about food safety, skyrocketing fuel costs and growing consumer demand for fresh, seasonal food. Whatever the reason, the attempts are spurring a massive overhaul of the way these businesses operate, from the way they plan menus and pick suppliers to the way they think about food costs and distribution.
Petrilli was already familiar with Polyface when Chipotle opened in Charlottesville in October 2006. Owner Joel Salatin had become something of a celebrity after Michael Pollan hailed him as a hero of the organic farm movement in his 2006 best-seller, "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Petrilli also was a member of the Polyface buying club, which periodically drops off meat and eggs for members in the Washington area.
The next month, Chipotle founder Steve Ells and President Monty Moran visited Charlottesville. Petrilli drove them the 48 miles to Swoope to tour the farm. Ells, a classically trained chef, was enamored of Salatin's holistic vision of farming and, like Petrilli, wanted to work with Polyface to determine whether it would be possible to source locally. "There's a huge cost to doing things this way," Petrilli says. "We're spending money to find out how and if we can bring small farmers with our values into the system."