Steve Ells was looking for a fast way to make money when he took $85,000 from his father and plunked it into an old Dolly Madison ice cream store near DU, where he served a hip variation on the big burritos he'd seen at taquerias in San Francisco.
And the rest is history -- except that the future for Chipotle, and Ells himself, looks so very bright: Esquire just named him "America's Most Inspiring CEO."
The honor comes in a special Working supplement to the October issue of the magazine, titled a "Man's Guide to Fortune and Fulfillment." And the 48-year-old Ells, who heads a list of thirty inspiring CEOs, has found both with Chipotle.
A lengthy piece by A.J. Jacobs titled "The Accidental Executive" tells a story that by now has become legendary. Ells, who'd been an art-history major at college in Colorado (and whose first job was "mowing lawns" here), went to San Francisco for culinary school and was trained as a classical chef. He opened Chipotle in order to raise enough money to start a high-end restaurant. What happened?
"I'm opening three high-end restaurants a week," Ells tells Esquire. And they're all outlets of Chipotle, which now has 1,300 locations across the country and is making forays into Europe, too. (He's also introduced a second concept, ShopHouse.) But Ells -- who picks up trash at one of the Chipotle stores in New York while he talks with the reporter -- isn't just concerned with good service and good value. In 1999, he started putting an intensified focus on the sourcing of Chipotle's ingredients, and that has turned into a full-fledged obsession over "food with integrity" -- and explaining to Chipotle's customers, through signage, movies and yes, even Ells's appearances on reality TV, exactly why that is important.
But Ells isn't done with Denver. Chipotle, which now employs 35,000 people and had $2.3 billion in sales last year, still has its headquarters in this city -- where Ells's office is 100 square feet. Chipotle outlets continue to open here, and next month, Denver will be the second city to host Chipotle's massive Cultivate festival, which got its start in Chicago last year. On Saturday, October 6, the free Cultivate Denver festival will fill City Park with great bands and great food (of course) -- but since this is an Ells venture, it will also feed the soul, too.
How good are the bands booked for Cultivate Denver? Read Dave Herrera's assessment in "See Best Coast, Tennis and Group Love for free at Chipotle's Cultivate Festival in Denver."