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How Steve Ells wrapped up the fast-casual niche

Good food starts with good ingredients, followed by good ideas, finished by good execution. And greatness follows only in the laborious improvement of all three.

This, as I discuss in my review of Beaucoup Burrito, is about as close as you're going to come to the core of kitchen wisdom — to the nut of truth around which all madness and luxury follow. It's the not-so-secret secret, the magical combination that forms the purest and most simple explanation of what makes a good restaurant.

Not a successful restaurant, mind you. Often, the rigid adherence to such a plain, merciless and unwavering code will quickly kill off an owner's dreams of Jaguars, call girls and champagne. After all, good ingredients cost money. A good concept is free, but coming up with one can be difficult, since it sometimes seems everything has been done before — usually just a block over. And good execution requires the hiring of true talent or the training of same: both expensive propositions the farther you climb up the ladder.

Location Info

Map

Chipotle Mexican Grill

1644 E. Evans Ave.
Denver, CO 80210

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: South Denver

Still, it's a combination that often works. It seems so stupid, so simple, so obvious, and yet I'm amazed at how often a chef, KM or owner ignores this formula, thinking he can cut corners and still expect greatness. God knows, I've broken these rules myself — skimping on ingredients for the sake of making my food cost, working on concepts (classical Swiss cuisine, Mexican-Japanese fusion in a place that understood neither, Irish farmhouse food in central Florida in August) doomed to ignominious death, or falling down on the execution when, through rage or boredom or frustration, I could no longer make my hands do the work they were made for. That's why I don't have a great restaurant of my own, why I knew many years ago that I never would. Good food, good concept, good execution: It's easy to say, but not so easy to pull off out in the real world.

It can be done, of course, and Chipotle did it so well that operators with a small space, a few bucks and a dream of restaurant riches — operators ranging from the abysmal Beaucoup Burrito to the promising Tocabe — have endlessly copycatted its approach. But even with Chipotle, there were bumps along the way.

From the beginning, Steve Ells, Chipotle's founder, didn't have much in the way of a concept. He knew he wanted to make burritos. He wanted to make burritos like the burritos he'd get at the late-night taquerías in San Francisco's Mission District — big, fat things, made to order and rolled in foil. (At the time, Ells was working with Jeremiah Tower at Stars — no small gig, and about as far from the Valencia Street taquerías as you can get.) But still, a burrito restaurant? That's not a lot to go on. And when the first Chipotle opened, in July of 1993 (with a rather poorly designed system where servers in the front had to shout orders to cooks in the back and no one seemed to know what, exactly, they were ordering), it was obvious that the concept could use some refinement.

So Ells opened up the kitchen, bringing the prep crew out into the light and allowing customers to see everything that they would be eating. They ordered as they moved in slow progression down an open counter and got to see their dinner being assembled (a system precisely like the one at Beaucoup), then got their finished grub and either ate sitting down in a nice, modern dining room or took it on the hoof. Though it didn't have a name at the time, what Ells had invented was the fast-casual model: nicer than a Taco Bell, not quite as formalized (with servers and menus and checks) as a Chili's.

"When I created Chipotle in 1993," Ells recalled in a company prospectus, "I had a very simple idea: Offer a simple menu of great food prepared fresh each day, using many of the same cooking techniques as gourmet restaurants. Then serve the food quickly, in a cool atmosphere. It was food that I wanted, and thought others would like too. We've never strayed from that original idea. The critics raved and customers began lining up at my tiny burrito joint. Since then, we've opened a few more."

From the start, his concept called for good ingredients, and over the years he's consistently improved on those ingredients. Good beef and pork became free-range Niman Ranch beef and pork. Plain beans became organic beans. Even after McDonald's bought majority control of the company in 1999 (the year Ells would see 37 stores up and running), Chipotle stayed true to its idea of starting with the best product and going from there.

Finally, Ells remembered good execution, too. Chipotle is not a fine-dining restaurant. The cooks in the back are not doing reductions and emulsions; they're not poring over Larousse for inspiration. Still, Ells came from a fine-dining background (he got an art degree in Boulder before heading to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and did enough white-jacket time before turning to the burrito game to be considered a serious pro) and a place that recognizes that good ingredients are best respected by their skillful use. Plenty of restaurants in this town do carnitas, but few turn out a carnitas burrito as good as the one I can get at any Chipotle in the city. That's a comment on the cooks (several thousand of them) that Ells employs. They understand that with a good concept and good ingredients, it's their job only to cook well and then get out of the way.

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