OK—so maybe you don’t have more than 900 restaurants.

You don’t have more than 1.5 million Facebook likes.

You don’t buy more naturally-raised meat than any other other restaurant company in the world.

And you don’t have the USA’s first-ever LEED Platinum-certified restaurant.

So you’re not Chipotle Mexican Grill.

No worries. They’re still a great example to follow.

Chipotle watches the big guys—and does the opposite

Since its beginnings in Denver, CO in 1993, Chipotle has lived in a Bizarro-world of fast-casual, doing exactly the opposite of what all the other guys do—limiting, rather than diversifying, their menu,  keeping wait times for food well above the industry standard of four minutes, raising prices (!) and cooking real—not pre-packaged or pre-prepared—food in every single un-franchised restaurant.

Green is good for Chipotle’s business

Gambling on the idea that customers will pay more for a quality product (a la Starbucks), Chipotle’s burritos are priced between $7 and $10—steep, but no one seems to be complaining. Revenue has increased over the last year almost 25%, and has increased even through recessionary times that were cruel to other restaurants.

Their stock price continues to go up, sitting above $350 at the moment—in fact, if you’d bought $10,000 worth of stock in Chipotle seven years ago, you’d have $71,000 to show for it today.

The secret to Chipotle’s success

The main part of Chipotle’s success is a business model that emphasizes naturally-raised meat (that means, as much as possible, animals raised outside of confinement, without antibiotics), locally-sourced produce and environmentally-friendly restaurant equipment and design—and, probably most importantly for consumers, quality food.

And although Chipotle has the revenue and purchasing power to be able to make their commitment to sustainability wildly profitable for them and their suppliers, there are things even smaller establishments can learn from their example.

Don’t get hung up on “organic” labelsbut be prepared to do some legwork. Organic certification is expensive and time-consuming, and lots of small farmers who practice sustainable, environmentally-friendly agriculture don’t have the time, money or energy to go after it. Chipotle doesn’t require its suppliers to be organic, but it does have criteria that farmers need to meet, and the restaurant audits its partners on-site. If you’re going to work with local farmers, go the extra mile to establish a relationship—your credibility with your customers will benefit.

Tell your story however you can. If you’re doing something above and beyond serving food—something that could, conceivably, make the world a better place—your customers want to hear your story. Note the word story. No one wants to read a pile of blah blah blah about your recycled napkins, but everyone likes stories: with characters, a plot, and a happy resolution. Chipotle has a series of videos on their website—and, even if you don’t have a budget for something that slick, just notice how their narratives suck you in… And if you have a social media presence, so much the better—that just makes your story easier to share.

Think about unexpected aspects of sustainability. We can talk for a long time about LED lights and high-efficiency fryers (and we do). They’ll save you money, definitely. But there are other ways to make sure your restaurant is doing more good than harm. One of the things that’s garnered Chipotle their LEED certifications is the fact that their certified restaurants provide bike racks and are close to bus stops. While you may not be able to move close to a bus stop, what else can you do to encourage people not to use their cars to get to you? Bike racks? Water bowls to encourage dog-walkers? Stroller parking?

The outside of your restaurant counts, too. Chipotle landscapes with native plants wherever possible, cutting down the need for extra water and pesticides. And they’ve installed a cistern to collect rainwater—so no potable water is used to water plants. Is there space outside your restaurant for a rain barrel? If you have green space, can you feature low-water plants rather than high-maintenance grass?

Figure out what you do best, and stick with it. Chipotle serves burritos, tacos, burrito bowls, and taco salad. You can get an order of tortilla chips, if you like, and customize your order with salsas, cheese and guacamole. And that’s it. No dessert. No fries. No boneless “chicken wings.” Serving a limited menu of very good food—and avoiding food waste as much as possible—is a more economical approach than a wide menu of mediocre food.

What do you think? Can smaller restaurants—especially ones with take-out services—learn from a giant like Chipotle? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Image credit: punctuated

Video from ABC: http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=7857921