Burrito Wars

Denver is the birthplace of the big-burrito craze. It's given the world Chipotle Mexican Grill and Qdoba Mexican Grill, as well as two smaller restaurants, Chez Jose and Illegal Pete's.

And, ironically, they have more than just large tortillas in common: Chipotle, Illegal Pete's and Chez Jose were all started by twenty-something white men, funded by their families and inspired by the burrito stands of California.

"I thought the concept was great, and Denver hadn't really seen anything like it," says Dan Ohlson, who opened Chez Jose in 1992. "They had Mexican food, but more traditional stuff. When we first opened up, it was kind of funny -- we had to explain to people what we were doing. They'd come in and say, 'I want my burrito smothered. I want the combo plate.' But we don't do that. Some people fought it. It wasn't what they expected. But once they tried it, it caught on."

But the origins and the concept are where the comparisons end. Both Ohlson and Illegal Pete's founder Pete Turner believe that patrons seek out their restaurants because of their independence. "We don't want to be in every strip mall," says Turner, who opened his first store on the Hill in Boulder in 1995. "It might be nice to have all the big money and stuff, but what is important to us is keeping our culture intact. We're more of a genuine neighborhood business rather than a chain outlet. I think that's why we continue to grow at 30 percent per year. Customers get it. We're personable."

"I think that actually helps us, because I think that people know that we're locally owned," Ohlson agrees. "We're a little bit more flexible and friendly, have less of a corporate feel. I think some people seek that out."

To stay competitive with the giant dried jalapeño, both Ohlson and Turner branched out, opening early to attract the breakfast crowd and stocking full bars to draw in night owls. "If you make yourself a little bit different, you can do okay, but you're not going to explode like Chipotle did," says Ohlson, who has a restaurant in Cherry Creek North and in the Cherry Hills Marketplace. "When Chipotle first opened up right down the street, that hurt us a little bit; it affected our lunch business. But we added a bar and the TVs, and that kind of helped to differentiate us, made us better for nighttime business."

However, neither restaurateur begrudges Ells and his empire.

"I like Chipotle. I think that they're a good concept, and I think [Ells] did a good job of marketing himself and getting in front of McDonald's," Ohlson says. "I thought that they were really going to go downhill once McDonald's bought them, but they've done a pretty good job of maintaining their consistency."

"I'm fine with other names blazing the trail, so to speak, increasing customer awareness, so that when we come into the market, people are ready for it," says Turner, who has two locations in Boulder, one in LoDo, just signed a lease for a Tech Center space and is considering expanding into Fort Collins and beyond -- to Madison, Wisconsin, and Austin, Texas. "We don't feel a need to explode onto the scene. We use our Denver store as our benchmark, and we're thriving on what is probably one of the most competitive blocks in the country."

That block, of course, is on 16th Street, between Blake and Wazee streets, where Chipotle, Qdoba, Illegal Pete's and Wahoo's Fish Taco outlets are practically within arm's reach; Qdoba, which started out as Z-Teca Mexican Grill and changed its name in late 1999, is based in Wheat Ridge.

"It's interesting that this was the capital of the burrito revolution," says Ohlson. "Denver is the place where it really exploded and where local chains got snapped up by the bigger players. If I had known that it would be easy like that, maybe I would have gone calling. The guy basically won the lottery."


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