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

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What's the future like for sustainable farming?

I think the future is bright, although there are many challenges that we're facing right now and will continue to face as we move forward. What's heartening is seeing some of the best minds in this country focusing on food issues, especially in the context of sustainability. The fact that young people are questioning agricultural and environmental practices makes me hopeful about the future.

Considering that McDonald's uses inferior products and you're a big proponent of all-natural, organic and sustainable ingredients, I'm curious as to whether you have any regrets about that now-defunct partnership.

I'm thankful for the seven-year relationship that I had with McDonald's. Their investment in us allowed us to expand our reach in a relatively short time period, but I think we both realized that we had very different and distinct cultures, and that going our separate ways would be better for both of us. They have had no interest in Chipotle since shortly after our IPO, in 2006.

By and large, Chipotle's menu has remained stagnant since its inception. Are there future plans to evolve the menu?

The menu continues to evolve in terms of how we source our raw ingredients. As we continue to buy better products and source more sustainably raised ingredients, our food continues to taste better. This is one reason why people continue to come back again and again. I think that's really the right kind of menu innovation for us.

What's the secret to wrapping a perfect Chipotle burrito?

It really is an art that our crews continue to perfect. They would all tell you that the only way to perfect it is to practice.

When you eat in a Chipotle — assuming you do — do you table-hop to get guest feedback? What's the best feedback you've ever gotten from a guest in terms of advice?

I eat at Chipotle quite often; I love it. But when I'm in the restaurants, I tend to spend more time with our managers and crews, if I can. I like to see how things are being done, find out how the crews are doing and what we might be able to do to help them be more efficient. For those of us who aren't working in the restaurants, that's our primary job — to help the restaurants run better. But I do like to hear what customers think about our restaurants, and I definitely get a lot of feedback. I always appreciate that.

Despite the more than 1,450 Chipotle locations around the world, you've never franchised the concept. What's the reasoning behind that decision?

I think restaurants franchise for one of two reasons: one, they need capital to grow, or two, they need operators to run restaurants. We have a very strong economic model, and more than enough capital to fund our growth (which we have funded entirely through income from operations since going public), so we don't need that, and we are able to attract remarkable top performers to run our restaurants. Since we don't really need the things people look to franchisees to provide, I'd rather not give up the control, or the long-term return on investment, by franchising.

While most people would agree that Chipotle rules the world of burritos, you still have plenty of competition. How do you manage to stay relevant and at the top of your game?

All of our restaurants operate in competitive areas, and the nature of competition goes well beyond other burrito places. I'd suggest that we compete with a wide variety of restaurants — pretty much any place you'd spend about the same amount of money to get something to eat. But we don't really focus on that. If we run our restaurants the way we're capable of, we think we can do well anywhere that we're operating.

What would the world be like without Chipotle?

When I opened the first Chipotle, I had the novel idea of showing that food that was fast didn't have to be a typical fast-food experience — and over the years, we've certainly accomplished that goal. We're changing the way people think about and eat fast food, and we're reinventing a category that was really becoming characterized by cheap, heavily processed ingredients and a really unimpressive experience. We've turned that around and are serving great food, made with sustainably raised ingredients and prepared using classic cooking techniques, all in a way that's available and affordable for everyone. I'm not sure that would have happened without Chipotle. It might have, but nobody else is doing these things on the scale that we are.

When are you bringing ShopHouse, your Southeast Asian fast-food concept, to Denver?

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson