07/04/2012 07:44 EDT | Updated 05/13/2013 07:20 EDT

Chipotle Walks the Talk of Sustainable Food

I remember coming across a video in my YouTube searches that was about the evolution of farming, it was set to the music The Scientist written by Coldplay, sung by Willie Nelson. The message, and the music left me in tears. We have made everything simple complicated. We have taken the pure and poisoned it with our desire for more. More of everything.

The video resonated so strongly with me I shared it with my staff and my social media circles. Over the past year I've incorporated it into more than one of my presentations about local food. Interestingly, it was the message that stuck -- not the brand behind the message. It would be a full year later before I would make a connection to the brand and the business behind it -- Chipotle Mexican Grill.

My career in culinary tourism development is founded in the authentic connection between growers, producers and chefs. Showcasing businesses that are giving the consumer a true "taste of place" by serving the freshest, seasonal food. Sadly, I often come across businesses and brands attempting to capitalize on consumer's interest in supporting local and sustainable food. Doing the minimum to allow them to incorporate the message into their marketing. So while Chipotle's video had a powerful impact on me I wasn't ready to drink their "commitment to local and sustainable" Kool-Aid. How could a restaurant chain with 1,250 worldwide outlets procure socially responsible food?

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of finding out just how Chipotle walks the talk. My experience began at the midtown Toronto Chipotle location at Yonge and Eglinton (one of four Canadian locations). I arrived at the restaurant first thing in the morning to meet with an excited group that was going to be part of a day's excursion to Beretta Family Farms -- the King City farm that supplies all of the Ontario locations with the steak and chicken for their burritos and tacos.

I thought I was joining a bunch of media for the day. Wrong -- I was one of two guests joining a group of 14 Chipotle staff and, man, were they ever excited! The locations restaurateur, April, a young woman from the Midwest who has made her way up in the company over the past seven years shared a bit of the Chipotle story with me as we waited for the bus to arrive.

The company has what appears to be an amazing culture. The staff working there all get to move through the various "stations" learning how to prepare fresh food (they make their salsa and guacamole fresh daily) and promote the Mexican fare with pride. These are not "Mc-jobs" April said with a smile -- all of the Ontario locations are run by people who started as "crew". As soon as we stepped on the bus to take us to King City I had a sense that the company's vision is one that is shared by all. The Scientist was playing on the sound system.

Arriving at Beretta Farms was magical. The bus couldn't make it down the laneway and as the group embarked to walk down the drive, Mike Beretta came along with his two draft horses and the family Jack Russell, Jackie! We hopped on the hay wagon and made our way, passing gorgeous pastureland spotted with beautiful red Angus cattle.

Mike Beretta of Beretta Farms

Mike, his wife Cynthia and their three children have farmed 850 acres (some they own and some they rent) in King City for the past 12 years. An accidental farmer, Mike was a professional soccer player who always wanted to own a farm and ended up utilizing some of Cynthia's family farm in southwestern Ontario to start farming sheep. They have come a long way since those days now raising 95 sheep, 80 hens, eight heritage pigs, 400 head of cattle, 52 turkeys, a single Jersey cow (Victoria provides milk for the family), and approximately 2.5 acres of market garden.

The rest of the family was waiting for us at the barn. The farm is set on one of the most beautiful properties I have come across in Ontario. Rolling hills, trees everywhere and a pretty pond. As Cynthia greeted us and started sharing the family's story with the group, Mike led us to the barn where he released the sheep out to pasture, he'd been waiting for us to arrive before he let them out for the day. Happy is the best word to describe the energy emitted by the sheep, who took off running to the fields. It's also the best word to describe the look on all of our faces. This is life.


Cynthia Beretta showing off the farm's new beef jerky

After several hours of touring the farm, feeding the pigs (they get all of the scraps from the family's catering business), riding the horse and collecting farm kittens to cuddle with, we settled in for lunch. The Beretta's fired up the grill and threw on some flank steaks with their special seasoning. The steak was delicious -- it literally melted in my mouth! The team from the midtown Toronto Chipotle restaurant had sent up chicken tacos for us to enjoy. This skeptic was sold -- the fresh salsa and guacamole were fabulous and the chicken was moist and full of flavour. Chipotle purchases the chicken legs and thighs from Beretta Farms. Remarkably, none of their restaurants have freezers! They also purchase all of their cilantro and oregano from Country Herbs in southwestern Ontario.

As we made our way back to the city I reflected on the day and thought about the video. We had gone back to the start. The Chipotle staff was genuinely inspired, all of them stronger brand ambassadors and in fact, members of society. Sharing that experience with them was one I will never forget. It's one that every restaurant staff should have -- regardless of the staff member's position. They saw first hand what it takes to raise happy and healthy animals and the respect all living creatures deserve regardless of their purpose in life.


The Chipotle staff serving up lunch

Follow the adventures of Chipotle Mexican Grill on Twitter @Chipotletweets and Beretta Farms @Berettafarms