Chipotle founder Steve Ells discusses the ingredients behind two decades in business

See also: The ten spiciest moments in Chipotle's twenty-year history

Chipotle founder Steve Ells discusses the ingredients behind two decades in business
Anthony Camera

There are thirteen "characteristics" required of Chipotle employees, who now number more than 40,000. One is "infectious enthusiasm." Another is "happy" — you must be happy. Half-time happy doesn't cut it.

And it's those attributes — along with fast food focused on slow-food philosophies, resulting in burritos that make loyal fans very, very happy — that have elevated Chipotle Mexican Grill to worldwide dominance and earned its founder, Steve Ells, the title of Most Inspiring CEO in America last year from Esquire.

See also:
- Meet the man behind the music at more than 1,400 Chipotles
- The ten spiciest moments in Chipotle's twenty-year history
- For Chipotle's birthday, Westword built a two-pound burrito

Ells grew up in Boulder in a food-centric family. From the very beginning, he had aspirations of becoming a chef, going on from the University of Colorado to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, with the intention of opening a fine-dining restaurant, one similar to Stars in San Francisco, where Ells cooked under the tutelage of star chef Jeremiah Tower. But while he had the chef's jacket and a few solid years of experience in a renowned kitchen, he didn't have the money to invest in a full-fledged restaurant. Instead, he had a novel, minimal-monetary-risk idea that could catapult that dream to fruition: a little burrito shack called Chipotle Mexican Grill.

"After a two-year stint at Stars, I wanted to start my own full-service restaurant, but I didn't have the funds to do so, so I got a modest loan from my parents and opened Chipotle with the goal of having it fund that restaurant," says Ells, who unleashed his first Chipotle on July 13, 1993, in an 850-square-foot former Dolly Madison ice cream shop at 1644 East Evans Avenue, near the University of Denver.

"I knew it wasn't a high-traffic area, but it was affordable to me, and I could just sort of envision what Chipotle would look like in that space, so I jumped in there with a contractor and we transformed it," says Ells, who recalls hauling his butt to the hardware store to buy the plywood, barn metal and conduit to make Chipotle's often-mimicked utilitarian light fixtures. "I didn't have much money, so we had to make these very simple parts from the hardware store work in order to create the design."

The initial lightbulb for the Chipotle concept came on while Ells was in San Francisco, eating at one of the taquerias in the city's Mission District. He was inhaling a burrito — a "giant tortilla" — that was stuffed with traditional Mexican ingredients and wrapped in foil. "I'd never seen anything like that before," he remembers, "but I had an idea that I could use these authentic ingredients and put my own twists on them."

The "twists" worked. "Even though I knew we would serve food fast, I didn't want it to be a typical fast-food experience," explains Ells, who admits he "knew very little about the fast-food rules." Still, his experiences at culinary school and Stars had taught him that applying classic cooking techniques to fast food wasn't out of the realm of possibility. "Fast food is typically made with highly processed, cheap ingredients and prepared in very industrialized ways," notes Ells, who wasn't remotely interested in pursuing that route. "Chipotle was going to incorporate all the things I had learned at the Culinary Institute and Stars, and really elevate typical fast food."

Chipotle was a smash from the start, and within a year and a half, Ells opened a second location. "When I told my friends and family that I was leaving Stars to open a burrito shop in Denver, they thought I was crazy, but not long after the success of the first Chipotle, I knew I had to open just one more, so I opened a second one on Colorado Boulevard, which turned out to be even busier than the first," Ells says. "Customers just loved what we were doing, and the lines kept getting we kept opening more."

And more...and more...and more. There are currently 1,450 Chipotle locations spanning the globe, with more — hundreds more — on the horizon. And while Ells has added another fast-food concept to his repertoire, an Asian restaurant called ShopHouse, he's backed away from his initial dream of opening an upscale restaurant. "People often ask me if I'll ever open that restaurant," he muses. "I have no plans for that now. We're completely focused on our larger mission of providing sustainably raised ingredients in an accessible format. I think we're having much more of an impact with the Chipotle concept than if I'd stuck to my original plan."

And while Chipotle is an extremely straightforward concept, Ells emphasizes that his fundamental convictions are the same as they would be for fine dining, despite the detour to a fast-food empire. "The key is using really beautiful ingredients — and this idea of taking a very simple ingredient and making it something that's more extraordinary is a theme at Chipotle," he says.

A Chipotle kitchen functions like that of a bona fide fine-dining restaurant, he notes: "There's constantly meats on the grill, always some beans simmering on the stove, vegetables sautéeing in the pan, whole avocados, fresh herbs on the stems, knives, cutting boards, pots and pans and lots of prep work going on; it's not at all automated, and our customers can taste the difference, because we bring out the best in our food." And much of that food is local, he stresses.

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I liked Chipotle for a long time. It was reasonably priced, fresh and tasty. But when they crossed a certain price point it wasn't worth it anymore especially considering the many real Mex joints there are in the region I live (SoCal).


I can't believe it's been 20 years since I laid eyes on my first JUMBO BURRITO at Twist & Shout on South Pearl Street. I remember the open foil and porno-sized burrito with a couple of bites out of it, I blurted "WHAT IS THAT?" Went down the street to Evans and got my own.

Chipotle is still my favorite of the Big Burritos.


'All of Chipotle's locally grown produce comes from within 350 miles of the restaurants where it's served.'

While I commend Ells for his commitment to locally sourced produce, a 350 mile range is far, very far, from being truly considered 'locally grown'. 


What I love most about Chipotle is that the meat is from humanely raised animals.  It is the only place I will eat pork.  Factory farms are hell on earth for animals and I refuse to support them.  I think Chipotle should stress more often their choice of meat suppliers and why (I've seen it written on their paper cups and heard about it on Oprah's show).  Everything I've ever eaten at Chipotle is tops in flavor and freshness, and I believe a reverence for the life of the animals we eat plays a big part in this.   


I am proud of the success of home-grown Chipotle, and my wife, three kids and I eat there at least twice a month. And I believe Steve is a visionary. But he's a boring interview. 

I understand that "sustainable ingredients" is a Chipotle corporate key message, but using it in nearly every answer makes it just sound tired, and saps its meaning. I wish he had an interesting anecdote or two to share, specifically when Lori asked about the best customer feedback he's received, or what his worst trait is, or something he would have done differently. 

Although he was surprisingly open about the lawsuit and immigration questions.


Steve actually had a wonderfully creative(and trusting) contractor who found a way to get his first restaurant open on his $40,000 construction budget, coming up with quite a few of the solutions still carried out today: the corrugated metal, bare light bulb fixtures, plumbing pipes for counter legs, etc. It was exciting working with Steve and I was proud to be involved in the beginning of what turned out to be a  wonderful adventure for him. Still waiting for that bonus.

davebarnes topcommenter

"When are you bringing ShopHouse, your Southeast Asian fast-food concept, to Denver?"

He did not answer the question and you let him get away with that.


@caseyryank9 Considering how much corporate produce is brought in from Chile, 350-miles is getting closer to ideal.

LoriMidsonCafeSociety moderator editor

@davebarnesHe answered it when he said: "We aren't getting into detailed expansion plans at this time. That said, we're excited about the prospect, as we think the people in Denver would understand and appreciate ShopHouse just like they do Chipotle." 

davebarnes topcommenter

You asked "When?" and he said "aren't getting into".

I would have asked "when" over and over again until he caved. But, I am tenacious.