Local farm peppers Chipotle with produce

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2012 - 3:30 PM

The restaurant chain aims to find components for its meals from Midwest farms.

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Pahl's Farm in Dakota County will produce about 25,000 peppers per week for Chipotle. Here workers use the same technique to plant cabbage as they do the peppers.

Photo: Rick Nelson, Star Tribune

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In a few weeks, customers at Chipotle Mexican Grill outlets in the Twin Cities will be enjoying a taste of Rosemount.

That's because the fast-growing burrito chain is contracting with Pahl's Farm in the Dakota County suburb to raise green bell peppers and jalapeños.

Last year, the fifth-generation farming operation supplied Chipotle with more than 52,000 pounds of green bell peppers and nearly 12,000 pounds of jalapeños (chipotles are smoked jalapeños) from its Rosemount fields. This year's forecasts are even larger.

It's one thing for farmers to feed the demands of the Twin Cities' ever-growing cadre of locavore-minded restaurants. It's another matter entirely to satisfy the nearly insatiable hunger of a chain like Chipotle, which operates 56 locations in the Twin Cities metro area, and 1,250 restaurants nationwide.

The logistics are oversized and fascinating. Work begins in early March at the farm's Apple Valley greenhouse complex. Over a three-day period, about 2,000 shallow, soil-filled trays are carefully dotted with pepper seeds -- 128 per tray -- and, soon enough, a carpet of green starts to sprout across 9,000 climate-controlled square feet.

Come mid-May, six workers and a specially outfitted tractor transplant those 250,000 plants to the Pahl's Rosemount acreage; 19 acres are devoted to green bell peppers and six are covered in jalapeños.

Farmer Gary Pahl projects that roughly 25,000 peppers will come off the farm each week between early August and mid-October. Before being sent to Chipotles from Mankato to St. Cloud to Hudson, Wis., the peppers make a brief pit stop in one of the farm's coolers, each one the equivalent of three semi-trailers.

"Our warehouses are not museums," said Pahl. "The inventory turns over every day."

The same can be said for Chipotle's busy kitchens, where roomy coolers are stacked floor to ceiling with a constantly replenished supply of produce, meats, poultry and dairy products. There's no freezer on the premises -- a fast-food rarity -- and, with the exception of the tomatoes, which arrived pre-chopped, every ingredient is prepared on site, by hand. No wonder the constant bang of knives' blades against cutting boards is the restaurant's dawn-to-dusk soundtrack.

A market for local veggies

Pahl's is another intriguing story. Since the late 1980s, suburbanization has pushed its fields from Bloomington to Apple Valley to a flat, 1,100-acre expanse in Rosemount, with enormous fields of sweet corn, acorn and butternut squash, green beans, cabbage, tomatillos and green bell, poblano, serrano and jalapeño peppers.

Much of the farm's output is funneled to local supermarkets, a field-to-produce section tradition that goes back to the previous generation's connections to the now-defunct Country Club chain. Current retail customers include Rainbow Foods, Target, Wal-Mart and Cub Foods. "We were the first growers to deliver to Cub Foods, back when they had two stores," said Pahl.

The farm also maintains an impressive on-site vegetable market, which Pahl started by selling sweet corn out of the back of a pickup truck.

Chipotle approached Pahl's Farm four years ago, for a simple reason, said Mike Fuller, a marketing strategist for the company. "We like to know where our food comes from," he said. "But it's the freshness, the crispness, that's so valuable. These peppers are delicious."

Local, local, local

The company's revolutionary evolution toward using local and sustainable food sources started with humanely raised animal proteins.

Minnesota Chipotle outlets receive their boneless chicken breasts from Avon, Minn. The pork shoulder for the menu's excellent carnitas comes from mostly Midwestern family farms connected with the sustainably focused Niman Ranch cooperative. The company says that it's the first large restaurant chain to remove growth hormones from its dairy products.

"We don't claim to be perfect," said Fuller. "But that's our motivation to get better."

The next step: 100 percent pasture-raised milk for sour cream and cheese; right now, the company estimates that it's two-thirds of the way toward that goal. Its commitment to locally sourced vegetables is impressive, too; nationally, the company's 2011 purchases in this category topped 10 million pounds.

For a company that serves close to 800,000 Americans a day, it's a start. Minnesota's Chipotle outlets rely upon California-raised peppers for more than three-quarters of the year.

"But we're proud that we have two or three months where we use local produce," said Fuller. "Look, local sourcing is a great story, sure. But that's just one component."

There's also the boon to the local economy. The Pahls have roughly 125 workers on their payroll. "And all of those people will spend their salaries at the Byerly's and the Chipotles in this region," said Fuller. "That's a beautiful thing."

Chipotle is clearly on to something. "Sales are only going in one direction," said Fuller. "And that's up, up, up."

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

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