Next to food trucks, the biggest Mexican-food trend over the past decade has been Denver burritos — not the Mile High City's indigenous marvels, but the type that originated in San Francisco's Mission District: gargantuan, foil-wrapped bricks stuffed with beans, rice, meat, cheese, guacamole, salsa, sour cream and seemingly every Mexican ingredient ever created. And for that misrepresentation of Den-Mex, blame Chipotle founder and CEO Steve Ells.
Ells grew up in Indianapolis before moving to Boulder during junior high. His wasn't a family that favored fast food, though he admits to "sneaking out with my dad and eating crispy tacos at Taco Bell." At home, he says, "my mom used to fry corn tortillas for tostadas, with the ground beef and diced tomatoes and slices of avocado and shredded yellow cheese, and that was like the American taco." For seasoning, instead of hot sauce or chiles, the family used cumin or oregano.
Ells enjoyed Denver's burritos, both the smothered and the cooler variety, while attending the University of Colorado during the 1980s, graduating with a degree in art history. He moved on to the Culinary Institute of America, finishing in 1990 and shortly after scoring a job as a line chef in San Francisco under Jeremiah Towers, one of the pioneers of California cuisine. On an off-day, Ells and a friend visited the Mission to try its famed burritos for the first time. He can't remember which burrito spot they visited, but still carries his original sin. "I unwrapped it completely from the foil, and my friend said, 'No, no — wrap it back up,'" he says, laughing. "For me, forever, a burrito was from a plate and smothered in green chile. This was something completely different. It was delicious. And I started to eat them often."
He had ambitions of opening an upscale restaurant back in Denver, but no way to fund it. Seeing the lines snake around the Mission's many taquerias, viewing the Fordian assembly line methodically prepping the burritos without any loss of quality, hundreds throughout the day, "Each one at five bucks, they're making some good money here," he remembers thinking. "That's what I'll do — I'll start one, but put my own twist." So Ells returned to Colorado and started experimenting in the kitchen.
Ells opened Chipotle Mexican Grill in a former Dolly Madison ice cream shop near the University of Denver in the summer of 1993, with the help of an $85,000 loan from his father, who was so skeptical of the idea that he required his son to draw up a business plan. Ells's wasn't the first Mission-style burrito to penetrate Denver, though. The previous year, Chez Jose had introduced them to Denverites — much to their curiosity and annoyance. "When we first opened up, it was kind of funny — we had to explain to people what we were doing," founder Dan Oholson told Westword. "They'd come in and say, 'I want my burrito smothered.'"
Chipotle, on the other hand, become an immediate phenomenon. Ells told his father that he had to sell about 100 burritos a day to make a profit; he was selling more than 1,000 a day after the first month. Another Chipotle opened in 1995, and a third one soon after; Ells was still intent on using their revenue to open a formal restaurant. He dropped those plans after he had ten Chipotles — but people still ask when he'll open his much-dreamed-about real restaurant. "I open three real restaurants every week," he now replies. Today, there are over a thousand Chipotle locations.
Chipotle set off an American love affair with Mission-style burritos that continues. Its chief rival is also a Denver creation: Qdoba Mexican Grill. Tony Miller was an investment banker for Merrill Lynch who returned home and grabbed a bite at Chipotle; company lore maintains that Miller proposed a business partnership with Ells, who declined. Knowing a great idea when he tasted one, the Colorado native opened his first restaurant in 1995. Instead of just burritos and tacos, though, Qdoba plays around with other Mexican dishes like licuados (Mexican-style smoothies) and mole poblano, a style it labels Modern Nouveau Mex.
Qdoba lags behind Chipotle, but with 500 locations, it's far from an upstart; it's expanding almost as rapidly as Ells's kingdom. But Qdoba is also the unlikely legal guardian of the burrito's honor. In 2006, Qdoba tried to open a location in a Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, shopping plaza. That raised the ire of the Panera chain, which had a clause in its lease that prohibited any restaurants specializing in sandwiches from opening in the Shrewsbury location. Panera tried to argue with its landlords that Qdoba fell under that category, since burritos were obviously sandwiches. When the landlords didn't agree, Panera took them to the Superior Court.
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To bolster its case, Qdoba called a former USDA official, who contributed an affidavit that stated, "I know of no chef or culinary historian who would call a burrito a sandwich... Indeed, the notion would be absurd to any credible chef or culinary historian." A judge agreed, noting in his decision, "A sandwich is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos and quesadillas, which are typically made with a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice and beans."
The case earned national headlines — who in the 21st century still thought the burrito was a sandwich? — and soon after, the Qdoba opened in Shrewsbury, where it remains. "Short story, it looked like a frivolous lawsuit, and it was that," says Qdoba exec Ted Stoner. "Panera was trying to slow us down."
Doug Thielen, former manager of non-traditional marketing and public relations for Qdoba, was working with the franchise group in Boston when Panera filed the lawsuit. "There was a little bit of surprise — people thought, 'Really?'" he says, laughing. "With this country being immersed in Mexican food on a regular basis, you'd figure people would know this already. From a social-media perspective, people still bring this up — it was great publicity for us. Legally, burritos now stand on their own."
adapted from Taco USA