Chipotle Mexican Grill got its start in Denver, in an old Dolly Madison by the University of Denver, where Steve Ells opened his first store in 1993. Originally, the culinary grad thought that store would be the way he financed a fine-dining restaurant. Instead, Ells says, "I guess I found my calling." And today, rather than a single fine-dining restaurant, he has more than a thousand of them, with 35,000 employees. "Chipotle was always about fresh food, prepared in front of the customer," he explains. "But food served fast doesn't have to be a typical fast-food experience."
Over the past decade, Ells has focused increasingly on the ingredients in that food, starting with a visit to Niman Ranch in Iowa, where Paul Willis raises pigs the old-fashioned way. "That really kicked off the whole Food with Integrity program," Ells says. "Understanding where it came from, how it was raised...and why that's important to our society." But was Chipotle really getting that message across? See also: - Chipotle brings its Cultivate Festival to Denver - Steve Ells named "America's Most Inspiring CEO" by Esquire - Will Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen repeat Chipotle's feat?
"Over the years, I always thought that we did a pretty good job of marketing," Ells explains. "But at the end of the day, we never really connected with our customers in a way that let them know about our culture, our commitment to sustainable food."
So four years ago he hired Mark Crumpacker as chief marketing officer. "The basis of our marketing platform is this idea of cultivating a better world, to join us on this journey that Steve started twenty years ago, ultimately to changing food culture," says Crumpacker. "The way this is best done -- to tell our story -- is to get people involved in some way."
And this weekend, they'll have the chance to get very involved when Chipotle hosts Denver's first Cultivate Food, Ideas & Music Festival. The concept was first rolled out in Chicago, where 17,000 people attended the inaugural festival in 2011; Chipotle is expecting close to that number at the Meadow in City Park tomorrow. They'll find tents pitched in the grassy area behind the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where Chipotle will offer demonstrations by celebrity chefs, live music, exhibits by food artisans (including Willis) and other activities emphasizing fresh and affordable food made with sustainable ingredients. And the event is free. (Although food and drink will be for sale, the first 1,000 people in the gates will get tickets for free food at Chipotle food stops.)
"If I think about our success today," Ells says, "I think we're successful because we have this system: sustainable food, classical preparation, served by a team of high performers who are empowered to be the future leaders of the country. That's what we're best in the world at...it's not burritos and tacos."
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But there will certainly be burritos and tacos at Cultivate, as well as dishes from ShopHouse, the Asian concept the company introduced in Washington, D.C., last year. "When I'm at ShopHouse, it takes me back nineteen years," Ells says. "Although it was a lot busier than Chipotle on the first day...I think it really shows that there's a lot of room to go still. We're just scratching the surface."