When El Pinto Restaurant Farm decided to create an egg production program at its Albuquerque, New Mexico, location, sustainability already fit in with the restaurant’s ethos. Owned and operated by twin brothers John and Jim Thomas, the 1,000-seat restaurant has focused on self-sufficiency—whether growing produce in greenhouses on the property or creating salsa and green chili sauce at its own production facility—throughout its 55-year history. And with an in-house egg program that includes 200 laying hens, El Pinto has become the largest restaurant in North America to serve Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) eggs and the only restaurant in the U.S. to have a program on its property.
Doug Evilsizor, director of marketing and public relations for El Pinto, says the restaurant wanted an outside organization to verify its egg program so that customers would know it was using best practices. “We want to provide clean and healthy food even if the customer doesn’t realize the benefits provided,” he says. “A lot of the farm-to-table movement, which is an awesome movement, is much easier done at 10 to 20 tables. When you have 1,000 tables, it becomes much more complex.”
Evilsizor says the hens, which produce about 100 eggs per day, have continuous access to roam the range through the property’s “Hen Hotel.” A live-streaming camera broadcasts the hens’ activity over a TV in El Pinto’s front lobby.
El Pinto has also been able to use the program as an educational tool, showing guests around the property and outlining the process, the nutritional benefits of eggs coming from pasture-raised hens, and the terminology surrounding eggs—which Jim Thomas says ultimately confuses the consumer.
“Terms like cage-free, farm-raised, and even free-range do nothing to ensure the welfare of the hens or the nutritional value of the eggs,” Thomas says.
According to research cited by the nonprofit AWA, pasture-based egg management results in a “much healthier egg, containing three times as much vitamin E, seven times more beta-carotene, and twice the omega-3 fatty acids” as industrial eggs. AWA standards also ensure there are no added hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics.
“Specifically for laying hens, the AWA standards prohibit beak-trimming and ensure that hens are able to express natural behaviors—dust-bathing, foraging, nesting, and perching, and that they are raised outdoors on a pasture or range,” says Emily Moose, AWA’s director of communications.
Moose says the AWA program has grown dramatically in the past 10 years, as more farms become certified and more restaurants seek out those products, although the number of U.S. egg producers that are AWA-certified still falls below 1 percent.
“Many farmers find pasture-based production to be low-overhead and low-input in contrast to the massive infrastructure costs associated with industrial systems,” Moose says.