The Chipotle concept, both the design and menu, is simple. If you had to do it all over again, is there anything that you would change?

I've had twenty years to make changes and not much has been tweaked. Part of what makes Chipotle work is its focus. By focusing on doing just a few things — and doing them right — we can do them better than anyone else does. People have loved Chipotle from the very beginning — and they still do. In fact, we're still turning new customers on to Chipotle all the time.

Why did you choose Denver to open the first Chipotle?

Steve Ells is no stranger to the kitchen.
Steve Ells is no stranger to the kitchen.

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I grew up in Boulder and wanted to move back there from San Francisco to open Chipotle, but then I was offered the old Dolly Madison space on Evans in Denver, and I fell in love with it. Shortly after I opened it, I moved to Denver.

Did you fund it on your own, or did you have to beg, borrow and steal?

I convinced my parents to invest in the restaurant before I moved to Denver — and before I even had a name for the restaurant. Naturally they were skeptical, but they eventually decided to invest, and their $85,000 investment was the best investment they ever made.

Whenever anyone opens a restaurant, there are always cynics who say it'll never work. Did you have to deal with a posse of naysayers?

Most people were quite skeptical. I remember describing the concept in a lot of detail, and the feedback was that most everything was wrong, mostly because it was completely different from any other fast-food concept out there. Ironically, I believe that Chipotle has been successful because of those differences. And as customers tried it, I think they realized that those differences were very important to them, too. The idea that we could serve sustainably raised ingredients, prepared in an open kitchen with classical cooking techniques, and serve our food in an interactive format so that customers could get exactly what they want, was a new approach to fast food; I just had no idea that it would be the new fast-food model.

Rumor has it that employee turnover, especially at the management level, is low. What do you do to retain employees?

When we hire new crew members, we do so with the intention of hiring our future leaders. Almost all of our managers started out as crew — even our two restaurant support officers, Gretchen Selfridge and Mike Duffy, started out working with me in the restaurants when there were only a handful of Chipotles. There's a lot of room for our people to grow if they have the desire and ability to make those around them better. I also think that it's rewarding for people to find success in an organization that's always trying to do the right thing. Our team is proud of the food they serve; they know the importance of sourcing ingredients that are raised in a more sustainable manner, and it makes them proud to be part of a company that's doing something that's larger than its product.

I've also heard that every employee hired by Chipotle must embody "thirteen characteristics." In case someone reading this wants to work for Chipotle, what are those characteristics?

You need to be polite, hospitable, smart, ambitious, curious, happy, respectful, honest, presentable, conscientious, motivated, infectiously enthusiastic and have high energy. We can teach you the skills to work in our restaurants, but you really can't teach these characteristics. By the time you're an adult, you either have them or you don't.

Chipotle's tagline is "food with integrity." What does that mean to you, and why is it important?

It's not really so much a tagline as it is a philosophy. When I opened the first Chipotle, I was proud to serve food that was fresh, because we were proving that prepping and cooking fresh food could be an essential part of a fast-food experience. But I soon came to realize that fresh ingredients just weren't enough anymore. Not only did I need to serve fresh food, I needed to know how it was raised. And it all started with a visit to an industrial pig farm, a typical confined-animal feeding operation that's the sort of operation responsible for most of the pork supply in the U.S. What I saw there was a system of exploitation that made me very uncomfortable, and I knew our customers would be uncomfortable had they seen it, too. Shortly after that visit, we started purchasing all of our pork from Niman Ranch, where pigs are raised out of doors, or in deeply bedded barns, and without the use of antibiotics. Since that initial visit, Chipotle has been on a quest to find more sustainable sources for all of the food we serve. We purchase more meat raised without antibiotics than any other restaurant company, and we're the only national restaurant company with significant commitments to local and organically grown produce, not to mention the only company using dairy products made with milk from cows raised on open pastures and without the use of the synthetic hormone rBGH. More recently, we've been moving away from ingredients that are genetically modified.

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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.