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Will Chipotle’s New Tortillas Save Its Soul?

CEO Steve Ells wants to renew his company’s feel-good mission

Photo: Chipotle/Facebook

Two years ago Chipotle, the national burrito chain that’s in the midst of a critical turnaround plan, announced it was going to completely rethink the heart of most of its menu items: the tortilla. When it’s not made by hand, Mexico’s most famous flatbread — made from either a corn or wheat-based dough — is generally mass produced using chemical additives. Inspired by artisanal Mexican tortillas, this year Chipotle became the first chain to create, manufacture, and serve a five-ingredient tortilla that can be produced on a massive scale.

Chipotle goes through around 500,000 tortillas every day. Since January 2017, both its corn and flour tortillas have been additive-free. The flour tortillas contain just five ingredients: flour, water, salt, oil, and yeast. The corn tortillas are made from only corn masa and water.

The company has, for decades, been publicly stripping its menu of artificial flavorings, GMOs, antibiotics — in short, anything the average diner can’t pronounce or easily picture in their mind. CEO Steve Ells founded Chipotle in 1993 with a mission he still champions: “to change the way people think about and eat fast food.” Over the intervening decades the company topped consumer index lists and was held up as a standard for everything from its style of fast-casual service and food distribution model to its ethical sourcing of sustainable foods. But then the E. Coli crisis of 2015-2016 broke. Chipotle’s consumer image and stock plummeted.

Ells is undeterred. “At the end of the day customers love what we do and now we’re doing it better than ever before,” he says. The introduction of the new tortillas — which were two years in the making — mean Chipotle’s entire menu now contains 51 ingredients any diner can easily identify. (Many chains — including Subway, and McDonald’s — have been moving in the direction of serving additive- and antibiotic-free foods in recent years in response to consumer demands, perhaps inspired by Chipotle’s longtime mission.)

The new tortillas were engineered to remove ingredients commonly found in many mass-market breads: fumaric acid, for instance, which adds a tart flavor, as well as common preservatives like calcium propionate, sorbic acid, and sodium metabisulfite.

“When you say something has tomatoes in it, you can picture that,” Ells said on a call with Eater, “but some of these other things, calcium propionate?”

Calcium propionate is an additive commonly used in the bread industry to inhibit mold growth.

The research and development started at Washington State University with Dr. Stephen Jones. “Our job is discovery,” Jones says, explaining that his lab sometimes helps food processors like Chipotle identify the ingredients and proportions they need for the item they want to make. “We worked with them on the tortillas, and on the recipes, and we sort of hand things off after awhile... After it reaches point of scaling up, they take it to the next step.”

Ells credits Jones and his lab for “the inspiration” to move beyond the ease of mass-market tortillas. “I spent time with Steve Jones at the Bread Lab and I give him a lot of credit. That’s where I learned how great bread is made,” Ells says. Jones and his team developed several tortilla recipes: Of the ones made with wheat flour, Jones tested a recipe that used a naturally leavened starter, as well as one made with commercial yeast. In the end, Chipotle went with the yeast option. “There are a lot more variables when you get into the starter,” Jones says, “it’s more complex in terms of ramping up production.” (When it first announced its tortilla project, the company was planning to produce a tortilla made with only four ingredients, nixing the yeast.)

After working with Jones’s Bread Lab, Chipotle brought the recipes to its test kitchens and then to its partner tortilla bakeries. The company works with several partner tortilla manufacturers throughout the U.S. (Though these facilities make tortillas for other companies in addition to Chipotle, Chipotle’s all-natural tortilla is only made for Chipotle.)

“The biggest challenge, which wasn’t as hard as we thought, was to get rid of the preservatives,” Ells says. “Our advantage is twofold: We have a great relationship with our bakeries, and our distribution model is faster than any other chain.”

Bread is made with additives for two main reasons: to extend shelf life and to make it easier for machines to manipulate the dough, which eliminates a lot of waste. By removing additives that prevent mold growth, for instance, Chipotle’s tortilla makers had to change their systems to avoid spoilage and loss.

As Jones notes, “that might involve refrigeration.” But Ells says that they’ve worked with their bakeries to add special ventilation to the bakery areas, which helps limit mold spores in the factory (mold spores exist, naturally, everywhere). Chipotle also installed a process at the manufacturers whereby the bags holding the finished tortillas are now flushed with nitrogen; by pushing out oxygen, which encourages mold growth, the bags themselves become a preservation system. Finally, Chipotle restaurants get their tortillas delivered more frequently than before, meaning the breads aren’t sitting on shelves for very long before they’re heated and served.

“I don’t think most customers are going to notice the difference, but that’s not really the point,” Ells says.

At least one customer has noticed a difference. Nash Ragnauth of Jamaica, N.Y. told Eater on Monday he always orders Chipotle’s chicken burrito. He visits the chain’s Forest Hills, N.Y. location every few months after class. “This time the tortilla is chewier, and a little thinner,” he says, when asked to compare his burrito to the last one he ate, which was back in January. “Everything else about it is the same.” But Ragnauth was the only one among his group of friends that day who detected a change.

Recently, Chipotle hinted it would be raising prices in certain markets this year or next. Whether that’s due to rising minimum wages or the investment associated with developing a new tortilla, the company wouldn’t say but a spokesperson says such increases will be minimal. “Our costs have always been higher than traditional fast food,” Ells says. “But in terms of the new tortillas the additional cost is negligible. As our production grows, our margins decrease.”

Jones sees company executives more often than other university professors, and he’s impressed with what Ells is doing. “To Chipotle’s credit, [Ells] is pioneering and showing companies what they can do on a mass scale, whether it’s antibiotics out of meat or preservatives out of tortillas,” Jones says. “In terms of any discovery that’s going on, showing how it can benefit the whole industry is a first step. It’s huge.”

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