On Thursday, October 14, 2010, I had the opportunity to sit down with local restaurant manager and my boss, Melody Suhr, of Chipotle Mexican Grill located on Forbes Avenue on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Chipotle is an environmentally conscious restaurant that embraces opportunities to minimize its ecological footprint. From the restaurant’s example, we can learn ways to minimize our own ecological footprints in our own lives. The following is the transcript from my interview with Melody.
The site: Every morning when I arrive at Chipotle for work, the dining room remains dim, as the lights are kept off until 10:00 AM. On the morning I walked in to schedule the interview, the lights were off as usual. We scheduled for 3:00 PM that afternoon. I conducted my interview with Melody in her office at Chipotle on Forbes Avenue.
Sam: How important does Chipotle feel it is to minimize its ecological footprint?
Melody: Extremely important. Steve Ells (owner of the Chipotle chain all over America and in some international locations) is a firm believer in it. He lobbies on Capital Hill for all of this. We have ten stores across the country that are 100% green. Every single store has recycling, for at least cardboard if nothing else.
Sam: Is there anything else Chipotle does to minimize its ecological footprint as far as the food and the packaging of the food?
Melody: Yes. We try to minimize what we do as far as the packaging. We have minimized how we bring our case sizes in and started vacuuming the bags to use fewer bags and less cardboard in what we are bringing into the stores. Steve is always looking for ways to better the environment as far as how we package what we bring in. We have several stores across the country that we actually do our carnitas (seasoned pulled pork) in house. When they take them to the stores they put them in an environmentally friendly pack and it steams and cooks them right in the store, they pull them, and then they vacuum them. They do this in a couple of different places. One is in Virginia. It’s really cool.
Sam: Can you tell me about “food with integrity?”
Melody: Sure. “Food with integrity” for Steve’s vision is all naturally raised meets: no antibodies, no steroids, no hormones and a vegetarian fed diet. 100% of the country has naturally raised chicken and naturally raised carnitas. In 62% of the country, there is naturally raised steak. In 75% of the country, there is naturally raised barbacoa.
Sam: Are there things you think Chipotle could do better in order to better their efforts towards minimizing their ecological footprint?
Melody: I don’t think there is really anything more we can do, because anything that is possible for what we do, we do. Look at what we call the package room in the back. That is where we vacuum our bags in order to use fewer bags of trash. We compress the bags. There are 172 stores out of 1,000 that are testing these package rooms that vacuum the bags to where you can have fewer trash pick-ups. This will help the landfills because there will be fewer trash bags being added to them. We’re trying to do anything and everything we can to help the environment.
Sam: Is minimizing the ecological footprint important to a lot of restaurants today?
Melody: No. I have worked in the restaurant business for twenty-five years and this is the only company I have ever worked for that has anything like this at all. It makes me proud for what I do and where I work.
Sam: Are you aware of any economical benefits of minimizing the ecological footprint?
Melody: The only benefit that we incur for what we do is in minimizing our trash pick-ups. That is less that we will have on our P & L, our profit and loss statement. This affects my yearly review on how I keep track of costs for the store. With the package room, we have cut our costs for trash pick-ups. We used to pay in the neighborhood of $750.00 per week and now we are only paying $325.00 per week for trash pick-ups because we have less of them. My profit control is now 17% higher than what it was.
Sam: In what ways are your customers informed of your efforts to minimize your ecological footprint?
Melody: In New York, they have a lot more to do with that than what we do. I don’t think many of our guests really know too much about it here. Steve going on Oprah really helped. Steve going on Nightline really helped. New York is probably the area where most of the customers know everything about what we do.
Sam: I noticed there were signs and baskets on the trashcans for recycling.
Melody: Yes. Nine times out of ten, customers actually put their bottles in there. That is just a small effort compared to how it is in New York. They do a lot more up there.
Sam: Other than the pride of being able to work for a company that is environmentally conscious, is there anything else that drove you to want to work for Chipotle?
Melody: No. When I came to work for Chipotle, I knew nothing about it. I didn’t even know what it was. That is not what drew me in, but it is why I stay. We started to grow more and more. After 2007, we had a boom as far as stores and in what we were doing. When I started working for the company in 2005, there were no stores in Pennsylvania, none in Michigan, nothing in upstate Maine, none in Connecticut, and nothing in upstate New York. None of those places existed. Now look at everything that we have done. They have all opened with naturally raised meats and local produce. That makes me happy. It makes me proud.
Sam: Do you take any of these environmentally friendly practices that you take home with you?
Melody: I do. I have a recycling bin at home: one for bottles, one for glass, and one for paper. When I sit them outside at my condo, they will come pick up my recycling. You can buy the recycling bin and have the actual bin. After I started working here, at Chipotle, is when I started recycling.
Sam: Is there a certain age group that knowledge about the ecological footprint and minimizing trash production is important to?
Melody: I would say the demographic that it is most important to now is people anywhere from eighteen to twenty-eight. I don’t think people over 40 worry about it. A younger demographic would definitely have more cares and concerns about it.
Sam: Do you have any recommendations for people in their day-to-day lives to minimize their ecological footprint?
Melody: How many times have you come into my store in the mornings and seen the lights off in the dining room? Every morning, I keep the lights off. All of the other stores in the area turn their lights on. I am the only one who does not turn the lights on until 10:00 in the morning. That is a daily occurrence here. For this store being one of the biggest in the area, my electric bill is one of the lowest. This is just a small thing we do. At home, I use candles a lot. I am a candle person. I don’t use the lights very much. Anything I can do, I will. Unfortunately, we do have to leave our lights on in the office, because the air conditioner is light censored. Other than that, we turn our lights off at night. Everything is controlled. The A.C. turns on at a certain time, but not just because I am in the building. I think everybody could do a little more at home. I do everything I can here, at the store.