A Chipotle Off the Old Block

Can a burrito change lives?

Yes, if you're talking about the rice-and-bean monstrosities from Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Just ask Todd Galloway, Ryan Kohland and Andrew Kohari, college buddies who recently launched chipotlelovers.com, a website devoted to the fast-casual chain that has turned a smoked, dried jalapeño into a bona fide cultural phenomenon.

"I would say that we're a cult," Galloway explains. "But in the most positive sense."

The trio's first place of worship was the Chipotle outpost in Dayton, Ohio, which had opened across the street from Kohland and Kohari's apartment.

"We could see it from our window," Kohland says. "It was like it was always calling to us."

But their time of plenty was not to last. After the friends graduated from the University of Dayton in 2002, they all moved east, where they were devastated to discover that there were no Potles -- that's slang for Chipotle -- located in their new towns of Norwalk, Connecticut, and Boston. Faced with such deprivation, the three soon found their desire for foil-wrapped burritos bordering on obsession.

"We found that we were talking about Chipotle all the time, more than was natural," Kohari says.

"We started wondering if there were people that were as obsessed as we were," Galloway adds. "We felt like there must be a larger community out there."

After a year and a half of compulsive cravings, they went live with the chipotlelovers.com website in early January, calling it an "online community for lovers of the finest burritos in the world." In the first six months, more than 400 fellow fans registered as members, hungrily digesting all things Chipotle, from the chain's history and factoids to pictures, new locations and even a dictionary of terms:

Chomp v. - To eat a burrito, as in Are you ready to chomp?

The Baby n. - Slang for a full-sized barbacoa burrito. Name derives from the burrito's large size and its resemblance to a second-trimester fetus, as in Does anyone wanna get a baby for lunch?

Fake Potle n. - A competing burrito establishment with quality far less than Chipotle, as in I had fake Potle. It was foul.

Chipotlelovers.com also has online polls, which ask visitors to answer such questions as, "What's the longest you've ever traveled solely for a Chipotle burrito?" The longest the site's founding fathers have ever driven for some Potle is two hours, but Kohland and Kohari regularly make the 100-mile round trip into Manhattan to visit the closest Chipotle to Norwalk.

There is also the "Guac the Vote 2004" poll, which allows the website's more than 500 weekly visitors to vote on the next Chipotle market. The trio plans to tabulate the poll results in November and send them to Chipotle, but right now Raytown, Missouri, a Kansas City suburb of about 30,000 people, is in the lead with more than 40 percent of the votes; Philadelphia trails at just over 20 percent.

"I would go there everyday because all the other Chipotles are 20 min. away!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! PLEASE RAYTOWN VOTE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It will change our lives," writes one chipotlelover.

"I am a transplanted Texan who is used to at least 2 burritos a week," writes another, voting for Boston. "I could quite possibly die soon without one."

Beware the roasted chile-corn salsa: The cult of Chipotle is taking over the world.

1965-1988: The Beginning

Steve Ells is the man behind the big-ass burritos. The person responsible for sending relatively sane people off the deep end for his spicy barbacoa, zesty chiles and oversized tortillas. The man Chipotle lovers hero-worship.

But this local boy is no cult of personality. He's modest and self-deprecating. "There is no big story here," he says. "We got into the business of making burritos and tacos. People seemed to like it, so we built more restaurants. It's a pretty basic operation."

Ells is an unlikely candidate for creating the Next Big Thing in Mexican food -- well, in burritos, anyway. He didn't grow up in Texas or New Mexico or even California. He doesn't come from chef lineage. He didn't even study business in college. No, Ells is a 38-year-old white-bread boy from Colorado, born and raised in Boulder, a graduate of both Boulder High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"Certainly, in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do," says the extremely private Ells. "I studied art history and had a great time, but I didn't have any sort of career aspirations."

So after graduation, he decided to stick with the long-held tradition of floundering undergraduates everywhere: stay in school. There would be no master's degree in thirteenth-century painting techniques, however. Instead, he headed to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. "I was always interested in cooking; it was always a hobby of mine," he remembers. "When I was a little kid, I used to watch cooking shows instead of cartoons. Julia Child was probably the biggest influence."

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Julie Dunn
Contact: Julie Dunn