When Steve Ells launched the first Chipotle in a former Dolly Madison ice cream parlor on East Evans Avenue nearly 25 years ago, it was the start of a revolution that would dramatically reshape the restaurant industry, making Denver the fast-casual capital of the country in the process. Ells is a classically trained chef, and his marriage of refined technique with good ingredients and quick service proved visionary, as did his commitment to sustainably sourced ingredients at fast-food prices.
Over the past couple of years, though, Chipotle has been plagued by flagging growth thanks in part to a rash of food-safety scandals. Today, the company announced that Ells’s time in the CEO role is coming to a close: Chipotle's founder and leader is stepping down.
“I am incredibly proud of Chipotle and our people — and grateful to our loyal customers — and while we are continuing to make progress, it is clear that we need to move faster to make improvements,” Ells said in a statement announcing the move. “Simply put, we need to execute better to ensure our future success. The Board and I are committed to bringing in an experienced leader with a passion for driving excellence across every aspect of our business, including the customer experience, operations, marketing, technology, food safety, and training.”
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Ells will be involved in the search process for the next CEO (as will Robin Hickenlooper, who recently joined the board), and he’ll remain executive chairman of the board, a post from which he’ll focus on innovation in sourcing and preparing Chipotle’s food. “I am confident that this will allow us to deliver value for our shareholders, and provide rewarding opportunities for our employees,” he added in the statement. “Chipotle has vast unrealized potential. As we work hard to restore our brand, I believe we can capitalize on opportunities, including in areas such as the digital experience, menu innovation, delivery, catering, and domestic and international expansion, to deliver significant growth.”
Under Ells, Chipotle grew to more than 2,350 restaurants and became a national and international brand. Bent on proving that its commitment to better sourcing extended beyond Mexican food, it spun off an Asian concept called ShopHouse in 2011, only to shutter all fifteen locations earlier this year. In 2016, it rolled out one location of burger shop Tasty Made, which continues to operate in Ohio. Chipotle is also an investor in Pizzeria Locale, which has expanded into a handful of locations across Colorado and beyond.
In big moves this year, Chipotle rolled out queso and remodeled its first location to bring it in line with the rest of the chain. We named that original location one of 100 restaurants in Denver we can't live without in our Eat Here issue.