A Chipotle Off the Old Block

How a local burrito joint wrapped up the nation's fast-casual food market.

Early 1990s: Flour Power

After graduating from culinary school in 1990, Ells headed to the left coast to be the line chef under Jeremiah Tower at San Francisco's renowned Stars Restaurant.

Fan club: Todd Galloway (from left), Andrew Kohari 
and Ryan Kohland at the Grand Central Station 
Fan club: Todd Galloway (from left), Andrew Kohari and Ryan Kohland at the Grand Central Station Chipotle.

"I went to Stars thinking, 'I'm an aspiring chef, and this is a great place to continue my education,'" Ells says. "And it was. It was a really exciting place to be. I think that is where I really learned how to cook and really learned how to taste."

But his future didn't lie at Stars or other fine-dining establishments. It would come from the food he bought in the Mission taquerías and off the streets near his house in the Upper Haight. "There were a bunch of taquerías in the Mission where I used to eat; there was even a really good one in the back of a convenience store by the airport. They were all over the place," Ells says. "And they all used a giant flour tortilla, wrapped everything up on the inside and then wrapped it up in foil. That was the inspiration -- the inspiration was the packaging."

As he stirred and chopped through his days, Ells's mind kept wandering to the possibilities. "We were cooking great food at Stars," he says. "But all I was thinking was how cool would it be to have these really great quality raw ingredients with my own twist -- use some authentic ingredients like chipotle peppers and things like that, but then put a twist on it with things like cilantro-lime rice, really lighten it up."

So he packed his bags and moved to the Mile High City.

July 1992: Coming Home

When Ells got back, he hit up his father, Bob Ells, for $80,000 to launch his burrito stand.

"It was a little bit of a shock to him," Ells remembers. "He did not think it was the greatest idea; he didn't understand it. I think he said something along the lines of, 'I don't understand why after going to one of the best cooking schools in the country and working at one of the top restaurants, now you want to go sling burritos?'

"And I said, 'Well, it's not really like that. It's actually elevating the fast-food experience.' I argued that just because it's fast doesn't mean that it has to be fast food. I wanted to redefine that whole thing."

Bob decided to humor his son, and the former pharmaceutical executive became Chipotle's first -- and, at that time, only -- investor.

"My father is very supportive of anything that his kids want to do. We've tried a lot different stuff," says Ells, who is the oldest of four children. "This wasn't a huge investment, so I don't think he saw it as a huge risk."

July 1993: 1644 East Evans Avenue

Ells took his dad's money and went shopping for a location, finally settling on the former Dolly Madison ice cream shop just a few blocks from the University of Denver campus. It was a space that Starbucks had passed on, not thinking the neighborhood was ready for five-dollar coffee.

"I was so terrified that the business would not do well and that there would be no way that I would be in a position to pay my dad back this $80,000," Ells says. "At Stars, as a line cook, I think that I was making $10 or $12 an hour. So $80,000, to have to pay that back was incomprehensible."

Ells decided to keep things simple by creating a menu with only two basic choices: burritos or tacos filled with rice and beans. Customers could then customize with their choice of pork, shredded beef, chicken, steak or sauteed veggies, with four salsas, cheese and guacamole.

He also kept the architecture simple, designing an industrial-chic decor with friend and artist Bruce Gueswel.

"If you look at our food, it's made up of high-quality yet pretty simple ingredients: beans, rice, tomatoes, corn. It's the use of great cooking techniques and things like fresh herbs and seasoning with citrus that can elevate it to something more extraordinary," Ells says. "I think you can say the same of the building materials. They are simple -- plywood, steel pipe, exposed conduit and ductwork -- but we've brought architectural value to those things through the creative use of those materials."

With the menu ready and the store built out, the first Chipotle opened on July 13, 1993, at 6 p.m.

"I think that first day, we did $400," Ells says. "The next day might have been a little bit more than that. But I think it was on a run rate to do over $1 million by the end of the first year, out of only 850 square feet."

Apparently the neighborhood was ready; Starbucks eventually opened a location just a few blocks away.

1995: A Star Is Born

Ells quickly discovered that he wasn't satisfied with just one twenty-seat restaurant, so in early 1995 he opened a second location, at Colorado Boulevard and Eighth Avenue. This was a critical point in Chipotle history, because the assembly line was introduced. Initially the open-air prep area was incorporated because it was the best way to configure the space, but customers reacted so positively that it became a Chipotle standard.

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