MEDFORD -- Chipotle is a little hard to find. From the street, when you enter the strip mall, you can see a Boston Market sign and dental offices, but to find the eatery, you have to drive around the side of the mall. There it is, a small store festooned with a "Grand Opening" banner. Chipotle, an up-and-comer in the nation's pantheon of healthy fast food, has finally come to metropolitan Boston.
There are now 585 in the nationwide chain. At the Medford branch -- the 578th -- the interior is all shiny pressed metal and deep magenta. Young women working the counter smile shyly as they flip tortillas into a warming press, cover them with shredded pork, black beans and rice, and salsa. A young man in the open kitchen turns and shows off a T - shirt that reads, "I made the guacamole today." The simple menu here, which boasts many organic ingredients and naturally raised meats, consists of burritos, tacos, and salads.
But in metropolitan Boston, Chipotle is a latecomer. The chain was one of the first fast - food places in the country to embrace healthy choices, but here it joins several small local chains already trying to make a name for themselves. America's love affair with fast food --
Last week, the New York City health board announced that after July 1, artificial trans fats, widely used in cooking and in baked goods and linked to hiking bad cholesterol, will be banned from the city's 24,000 restaurants, bakeries, and other eateries. The Boston Public Health Commission has launched a BestBites program, encouraging restaurants to eliminate trans fats, and its board is also discussing a proposal to ban trans fats.
Smart diners are not waiting, propelling the rise of places like Boloco, called The Wrap when it opened in 1997, which serves freshly made burritos. The name is supposed to sound Spanish, but comes from the words Boston, local, and company. In Watertown, the little cafe Lo Fat Know Fat, now simply KnowFat!, also opened in 1997 with promises of popular favorites with fewer calories. O'Naturals came to Acton in 2001, started after Stonyfield Farms cofounder Gary Hirshberg couldn't find a place for quick, healthy food while on a family trip. And in 2004, two guys opened b.good on Dartmouth Street, offering burgers, malts, and fries made from scratch.
In a city known for loyalty to locals, Chipotle may be swimming upstream.
Boloco, which sells burritos in 11 stores in the Boston area and is beginning to franchise out of state, is the closest concept to Chipotle. John Pepper, a Boloco cofounder with Adam Liebman, says they started the business at a time when wraps might be associated with "ultra healthy but not necessarily good tasting." Grilling unusual combinations -- such as terriyaki burrito or a Cajun version -- and no microwaving has proved a winning combination, says Pepper. As far as sales go, he adds, "We've grown eight out of the last nine years.
"Three months ago, we cut out trans fats," says Pepper. Harbar, the company that makes Maria & Ricardo tortillas, worked to develop a whole - wheat and a flour wrap without the artificial fats for the chain.
The newest store in Medford, near Tufts University, opened three weeks ago, and the building materials are green, Pepper says, with counter tops made from recycled materials and other environmental innovations. But the major concern is the same as at any fast - food joint: "The hardest part about our business is that customers are kind of time-starved," he says. That means getting Boloco burritos out fast, all 30,000 each week. He says his enterprise offers more than twice the ingredients similar spots do.
When Hirshberg of Stonyfield and Mac McCabe started O'Naturals, " No one really wanted to take on fast food," says McCabe. "So we did." There's no question there's a demand, he says. The company has other locations in Portland and Falmouth, Maine. McCabe is especially tickled about their newest outlet in a health club in Wichita, Kan., where a strip of highway has more variations on fast food than McCabe had ever seen.
O'Naturals's menu -- flatbread sandwiches, noodles, salads, soups, and pizzas -- emphasizes "free roaming" chickens, organic flour, and wild Alaskan salmon. And no trans fats. "I don't even know how to spell trans fats," says McCabe. He thinks that customers are finally starting to worry about what they're eating.
Yet, he adds, " This isn't food as medicine." It's got to taste good, too.
Jon Olinto and Anthony Ackil of b.good had a similar premise in mind. "We've learned a lot about what 'healthy' means to people," says Olinto. In the end, the public's taste rules. "Burgers and fries are the food everyone wants to eat," he says. Though the owners of b.good, which expanded to Harvard Square this year and will be in Brookline's Coolidge Corner next spring, relaxed their healthy concept over time, the principles are the same, Olinto says.
Their restaurants -- which feature folksy photographs of Ackil's uncle, who ran an old-style hamburger joint -- grind meats, hand cut potatoes and fry them in olive oil, and use natural peanut butter. "What we want to do is steal some of the McDonald's customers," says Olinto. "We love fast food but we're educated and we can't eat it every day."
None of the products they use contain trans fats, he says. Decisions on sourcing ingredients and the handwork involved add to business costs. "For sure, we could buy frozen french fries instead of cutting potatoes by hand," he says of a process that takes two hours a night. "Our labor costs will always be higher than McDonald's."
Of the four restaurants, KnowFat!, which next month will open its eighth store in the Landmark Building near The Fenway, has the biggest menu and the most earnest low-fat agenda. Although burgers and turkey melts are offered, along with wraps and hot entrees, the menu is sprinkled with low- and reduced- fat designations. "AirFries" are baked instead of fried, and no trans fats are used in cooking, says Gary Jacobus, chief marketing officer of the company that bought the original Lo Fat Know Fat site in 2003. Now the company is franchising outside of New England. "Demand is surpassing supply," says Jacobus.
One of the tricky aspects of expanding, says Jacobus, is finding real estate in the Boston area, which held up Chipotle, too, according to Chris Arnold , the company's Denver-based spokesman. "To get a good location took some doing," he says.
Chipotle founder Steven Ells began with one store in 1993 in Denver, then expanded with backing from McDonald's, before the giant chain divested all Chipotle stock this year.
Chipotle has "always done something pretty different than traditional fast food [places] ," says Arnold, such as cooking in the restaurant rather than reheating , sourcing natural meats and organic ingredients, and using no trans fats in the cooking oils or tortillas.
Chipotle's favorite example of what it stands for is its Niman Ranch pork. "Our pork carnitas weren't selling well," says Arnold, so the company investigated Niman, which is grown on small Iowa farms . It decided the product tasted better than commercially raised pork. The company got interested in how the animals were raised -- outside, without hormones, and on a vegetable diet -- and now pushes that standard across the menu, recently looking for organically raised beans. "When we made the switch to Niman, we had to raise the cost of the burritos by $1," Arnold says. The burrito went from being the least expensive on the menu to the most costly. "We started selling double the number," he says.
Arnold acknowledges that Chipotle likes to enter a region in numbers. "We never really go in with just one." For the other local players, many of whom know one another -- O'Naturals's owners just sold a Somerville location to Boloco, and the Boloco owners helped b.good with its upcoming location in Brookline -- that may not be welcome news.
Still, Boston can be a tough place to break into. The key for all will be customers. If they want healthier fast food and are willing to pay a little more, there should be business for everyone.