Chipotle's Steve Ells judging America's Next Great Restaurant

First came an appearance on Oprah. Now Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle, is a panelist on America's Next Great Restaurant, joining chefs Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone (The Biggest Loser) and Lorena Garcia. They'll be the judges as potential restaurateurs vie for what's being billed by Magic Elves, the production team, as arguably the biggest prize in reality show history -- "the opportunity to see their ideas turned into a new restaurant chain in three cities across America."

Had this competition existed two decades ago, would Ells have competed?

"When he opened the first Chipotle, it was never about developing a chain restaurant," Chris Arnold, Chipotle's director of public relations, says of Ells's first venture, the Chipotle he opened at 1644 East Evans Avenue in 1993. "It was creating a cash cow to pay for a 'real' restaurant. His goal was to own his own fine-dining restaurant. Chipotle was a means to that end."

After all, Ells had cooked at Stars in San Francisco after graduating the Culinary Institute of America in 1990.

But that first Chipotle was such a big hit that Ells opened a second, at Eighth and Colorado Boulevard, and then a third. "Now we're closing in on a thousand restaurants," Arnold says. "He was definitely on to something."

And how. One of those restaurants is in London, where Chipotle made its debut this spring; the company is now looking at other spots in London, as well as Paris and a few cities in Germany.

But before Chipotle continues its march toward global domination, Ells will have to finish filming. He's in Los Angeles right now, working on the ten Great Restaurant segments that will be part of NBC's new season this fall. "He's a big fan of restaurants," Arnold says. "So when he had the opportunity to do this project, he thought it would be a great way to work with would-be restaurateurs and help them understand what makes a great restaurant. It's a good platform for Steve and his vision."

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