A burrito is a thing of beauty. Swathed in tortilla, clad in foil, simple ingredients come together and something magical happens.
For John Pepper, CEO of Boloco and self-proclaimed "burrito-obsessed guy," capturing this burrito magic has been a journey. Pepper started Boloco, a chain of more than 20 burrito restaurants across six states, as a school project while earning his MBA at Dartmouth. His goal: to make delicious food through socially conscious food sourcing and community-focused business practices. Sixteen years later, he is still on a quest to build the best burrito, one ingredient at a time.
Recently, Pepper decided to put all of his efforts out on the table. In a series of YouTube videos, he reveals to the world what his burritos are made of. What we see: ethically raised beef, non-GMO corn, organic tofu, and a parade of family-run farms with all the trappings of a socially responsible foodie's fantasy.
The only catch: That farm is in Uruguay.
As the local food movement gathers momentum, Pepper's choice to go public with this confession of far-flung food sourcing might seem like an unusual one. Locavores might scoff at Boloco's argument that Uruguayan beef is the socially conscious choice for its restaurants.
"I even wondered: Are we doing the right thing?" Pepper says of his decision to source meat from another continent. "So I went down there to see."
At the heart of Boloco's meat story is Verde Farms, which sources the organic, grass-fed, hormone-free beef that Boloco uses in its flank steak. The video showcases one of Verde's suppliers in Uruguay, Santa Ana ranch, with green pastures, healthy-looking cows, and humane processing facilities designed in collaboration with Temple Grandin, the pioneering animal scientist whose methods revolutionized modern cattle farming.
Pepper concedes that he wasn't too excited when he saw his beef boarding a cargo ship. But he says he was won over by the consistent high quality of the steak, the affordable costs, and the sight of healthy cattle being wrangled by authentic Uruguayan cowboys.
So far, so good. But just to be sure, we sent the video to Ben Lilliston, vice president of programs at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Lilliston and the IATP work closely with farmers and policymakers to determine the economic, social and environmental impacts of current farming policies and practices.
"How the food is produced, in many ways, is more important than the distance that it goes," he says.
The biggest environmental impacts of raising cattle happen on the farm, not in transporting the beef. Traditional grain feed needs to be planted, harvested, processed and transported, which can result in a great deal of carbon emissions. As grass-fed beef became more popular as an alternative to conventionally raised beef, its proponents argued that it's the more sustainable option, since cows can graze in perennial pastures, which benefits the ecosystem. But scientists are still trying to understand how all forms of beef production affect the environment.
Lilliston is quick to point to the growing grass-fed beef movement in our own American Midwest. Although nonindustrial farms have had a difficult start, he says, "this is becoming more economically viable as feed cost rises, but infrastructure is still the biggest bottleneck for local meat processing."
Eventually, as North American grass-fed beef becomes more abundant, Boloco may need to adjust its model. But right now, Lilliston agrees that the company seems to have found a good balancing point in the debate over the social, environmental and economic impacts of beef production.
And what do the customers think?
When asked if he cared where his beef came from, one burritophile at Boloco's outpost in Washington, D.C., during the lunchtime rush said, "Ha-ha! I don't care. I would come here anyways. The burritos are really good."