by John Trybus, Managing Director

I have a confession to make. I love Chipotle.

I love Chipotle not just because of those tasty burrito bowls (although that’s certainly reason enough), but because of the company’s pioneering approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the fast food industry. The restaurant chain’s approach to CSR is not a typical one. In fact, you might call it an anti-CSR approach. More on that later.

Chipotle’s approach to social good is highlighted in the company’s tagline: Food With Integrity.

“Chipotle is a very different kind of company where the deeper you dig into what’s happening, the more there is to like and feel good about,” says Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s director of communications and this week’s social strategist.

Since its start in 1993, Chipotle has exploded in size, popularity and impact. Consider Chipotle by the numbers for a moment. The company now consists of more than 1,200 restaurants in 41 states, employs more than 30,000 people and generated $215 million in revenue last year. The “Food With Integrity” model appears to be good for business.

I caught up with Chris via phone from Chipotle headquarters in Denver for a very candid conversation about the company’s approach to social responsibility. Here’s a preview of what he thinks sets Chipotle apart from the competition:

  • Doing good is the business model. You can’t communicate something that does not exist. From the beginning, Chipotle set out to be ethical and show that just because its food is served fast doesn’t mean the experience needs to be a typical fast food one. Doing good “is the company’s ethos and ingrained in everything we do,” Chris says. “And I think that creates genuineness or an authenticity that can be really hard to replicate.”
  • A dynamic founder. Success begins at the top with a true leader. Chipotle’s founder Steve Ells has become the face not only of his company, but of a sustainable approach to fast food. “He can rally people around him and make them believe what he believes in and how he sees the world,” Chris explains. “That’s created a really unique culture here” that permeates through such a large operation.
  • CSR is an afterthought. Chipotle, unlike some of the competition, doesn’t have “add-on” programs created solely for the benefit of positioning themselves as a responsible company. In fact, they resist calling what they do CSR. “I think the most important single lesson is you can’t fake it. When your communications programs are saying one thing and your corporate behaviors are saying something else, than your communications efforts ring hollow,” Chris says.

Of course, my job as CSIC’s roving researcher would not be complete without asking Chris about Chipotle’s first TV ad played during the Grammy Awards which received much media attention in February. Take a listen to my interview with social strategist Chris Arnold to hear Chipotle’s take on the commercial and more about food with integrity.