Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) | August 15, 2001 | Rachel Brand, News Staff Writer
First, free-range chicken appeared in organic food stores and expensive restaurants.
Now comes free-range pork, which could gain wide exposure by appearing on the menu of national quick-serve operator Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Chipotle, based in Denver, recently introduced gourmet pork in its 155 restaurants across the country in a bid to improve ingredient quality - and taste.
And even though free-range pork-based tacos and burritos cost more, customers are eating them up, said Chipotle founder Steve Ells.
Free-range pigs "are not fed antibiotics. They are allowed to do what comes instinctually," said Ells. "They're out in fields; they're running around.
"Ultimately what it does for the customer is provide better-tasting pork."
Chipotle's supplier, Oakland, Calif.-based Niman Ranch, has marketed free-range pork for more than 25 years.
Niman's clients include Chicago's Charlie Trotter's Restaurant and Denver's Potager.
Niman's hogs are raised on small family farms in Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. The hogs eat only soy, corn and alfalfa and aren't fed growth hormones.
But the key to the flavor has to do with living outdoors.
Often, hogs grow up in temperature-controlled indoor pens. As a result, their flesh is lean but lacks flavor, founder Bill Niman explained.
To survive harsh Midwestern winters, Niman's pasture-raised hogs grow a layer of fat along their backs to stay warm, he said.
"There is a direct correlation between back fat and eating quality," he said. "It has to taste good."
"It tastes better, has more flavor, is juicier," said Teri Basoli, owner of Potager restaurant, at 1109 Ogden St.
As a result of supplying 16,000 pounds of pork to Chipotle each week, Niman Ranch has been able to increase the number of family farms it contracts with to 150 from 70. Within five years, Niman projects he'll work with 300 farms as Chipotle adds restaurants.
Chipotle slow-cooks the pork - mainly leg cuts - in juniper and bay leaves. The concoction becomes carnitas, a flavorful shredded meat.
"To achieve the same margins on a burrito, we had to raise the price a dollar," said founder Ells.