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

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.

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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 longer...so 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.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson