In today’s restaurant and fast food industry, consumer impressions about one’s brand are more and more governed by the quality and standards of the food supply chain.  Chipotle Mexican Grill has incurred explosive market growth because of its branding emphasis on “food with integrityChipotle logotranslating to higher quality, ethically based food ingredients served at its various restaurants.

Thus, business and general media were quick to feature the headline that on Friday, Chipotle suspended the use of pork sourced from an unnamed regionally based pork supplier. According to Chipotle, a routine audit discovered that the supplier violated declared humane-based standards for the housing of pigs with access to the outdoors.  The restaurant chain, which was decisive in its decision to stop supply, indicated that this was the first time it had suspended supplies because of a violation of standards. A spokesperson indicated to media outlets: “This is fundamentally an animal welfare decision, and is rooted in our unwillingness to compromise our standards where animal welfare is concerned.

The result is that an estimated one-third of its current 1700 restaurants now feature signs indicating that the Carnitas menu item is temporarily suspended due to a shortage of supply.  This evening, this author visited a suburban Boston area outlet and witnessed such a sign, along with a very long line of queued patrons.

One has to admire a company that is willing to adhere to its supply standards in spite of the consequences, especially in the light of the realities of mass food production and of Wall Street’s short-term focus on profits. A published report from Reuters indicates that move could possibly hurt the chain’s first-quarter results. The report indicates that the move underscores the clash among the U.S. agriculture industry, commodity brokers and food companies as consumers continue to become increasingly concerned about the sources and practices of food supply. One equity analyst has already cut first quarter earnings expectations for the chain. Readers may recall that global restaurant chain McDonalds recently terminated the Chinese subsidiary of a long established beef supplier after discovering the altering of  food expiration date labeling.

For its part, Chipotle is now hard at work seeking added supply from other existing suppliers. One AP syndicated report indicates that Niman Ranch, Chipotle’s oldest and largest pork supplier insists that it is not the supplier in question. Instead, it is working to get additional supply to fill-in for the current shortages.

We often are reminded on today’s realities that consumers and customer have more power and influence in buying decisions. This development concerning Chipotle Mexican Grill is certainly a testament to the meaning of such power.

Bob Ferrari