Longform

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

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What food trend would you like to see in 2013?

From the Chipotle perspective, I've never really paid much attention to food trends. In our twenty years in business, we've seen a lot of trends come and go, but we've always stayed true to what we've done since the beginning. Ultimately, restaurants and cooking should be about great ingredients, classic cooking techniques and an extraordinary dining experience. Those are the things that we've always strived to achieve.

What food trend would you like to see disappear in 2013?

Anything that doesn't involve great ingredients, classic cooking and an extraordinary dining experience.

What's your temperament like?

I have very high expectations — including high expectations of myself — but I think that providing a great dining experience requires high expectations, which is something I've really tried to instill in the people working at Chipotle. Today we have more top-performing teams than ever before; that's something that Monty Moran, our co-CEO and driver of people culture, really brought to Chipotle. Having top performers who are empowered to achieve high standards is critical when you have 1,500 restaurants around the world. We need the best people we can find to make sure the experiences we're providing are the best they can be — and all of that starts with having high expectations.

The Chipotle concept, both the design and menu, is simple. If you had to do it all over again, is there anything that you would change?

I've had twenty years to make changes and not much has been tweaked. Part of what makes Chipotle work is its focus. By focusing on doing just a few things — and doing them right — we can do them better than anyone else does. People have loved Chipotle from the very beginning — and they still do. In fact, we're still turning new customers on to Chipotle all the time.

Why did you choose Denver to open the first Chipotle?

I grew up in Boulder and wanted to move back there from San Francisco to open Chipotle, but then I was offered the old Dolly Madison space on Evans in Denver, and I fell in love with it. Shortly after I opened it, I moved to Denver.

Did you fund it on your own, or did you have to beg, borrow and steal?

I convinced my parents to invest in the restaurant before I moved to Denver — and before I even had a name for the restaurant. Naturally they were skeptical, but they eventually decided to invest, and their $85,000 investment was the best investment they ever made.

Whenever anyone opens a restaurant, there are always cynics who say it'll never work. Did you have to deal with a posse of naysayers?

Most people were quite skeptical. I remember describing the concept in a lot of detail, and the feedback was that most everything was wrong, mostly because it was completely different from any other fast-food concept out there. Ironically, I believe that Chipotle has been successful because of those differences. And as customers tried it, I think they realized that those differences were very important to them, too. The idea that we could serve sustainably raised ingredients, prepared in an open kitchen with classical cooking techniques, and serve our food in an interactive format so that customers could get exactly what they want, was a new approach to fast food; I just had no idea that it would be the new fast-food model.

Rumor has it that employee turnover, especially at the management level, is low. What do you do to retain employees?

When we hire new crew members, we do so with the intention of hiring our future leaders. Almost all of our managers started out as crew — even our two restaurant support officers, Gretchen Selfridge and Mike Duffy, started out working with me in the restaurants when there were only a handful of Chipotles. There's a lot of room for our people to grow if they have the desire and ability to make those around them better. I also think that it's rewarding for people to find success in an organization that's always trying to do the right thing. Our team is proud of the food they serve; they know the importance of sourcing ingredients that are raised in a more sustainable manner, and it makes them proud to be part of a company that's doing something that's larger than its product.

I've also heard that every employee hired by Chipotle must embody "thirteen characteristics." In case someone reading this wants to work for Chipotle, what are those characteristics?

You need to be polite, hospitable, smart, ambitious, curious, happy, respectful, honest, presentable, conscientious, motivated, infectiously enthusiastic and have high energy. We can teach you the skills to work in our restaurants, but you really can't teach these characteristics. By the time you're an adult, you either have them or you don't.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson