How Steve Ells wrapped up the fast-casual niche

Good food starts with good ingredients, followed by good ideas, finished by good execution. And greatness follows only in the laborious improvement of all three.

This, as I discuss in my review of Beaucoup Burrito, is about as close as you're going to come to the core of kitchen wisdom — to the nut of truth around which all madness and luxury follow. It's the not-so-secret secret, the magical combination that forms the purest and most simple explanation of what makes a good restaurant.

Not a successful restaurant, mind you. Often, the rigid adherence to such a plain, merciless and unwavering code will quickly kill off an owner's dreams of Jaguars, call girls and champagne. After all, good ingredients cost money. A good concept is free, but coming up with one can be difficult, since it sometimes seems everything has been done before — usually just a block over. And good execution requires the hiring of true talent or the training of same: both expensive propositions the farther you climb up the ladder.



Still, it's a combination that often works. It seems so stupid, so simple, so obvious, and yet I'm amazed at how often a chef, KM or owner ignores this formula, thinking he can cut corners and still expect greatness. God knows, I've broken these rules myself — skimping on ingredients for the sake of making my food cost, working on concepts (classical Swiss cuisine, Mexican-Japanese fusion in a place that understood neither, Irish farmhouse food in central Florida in August) doomed to ignominious death, or falling down on the execution when, through rage or boredom or frustration, I could no longer make my hands do the work they were made for. That's why I don't have a great restaurant of my own, why I knew many years ago that I never would. Good food, good concept, good execution: It's easy to say, but not so easy to pull off out in the real world.

It can be done, of course, and Chipotle did it so well that operators with a small space, a few bucks and a dream of restaurant riches — operators ranging from the abysmal Beaucoup Burrito to the promising Tocabe — have endlessly copycatted its approach. But even with Chipotle, there were bumps along the way.

From the beginning, Steve Ells, Chipotle's founder, didn't have much in the way of a concept. He knew he wanted to make burritos. He wanted to make burritos like the burritos he'd get at the late-night taquerías in San Francisco's Mission District — big, fat things, made to order and rolled in foil. (At the time, Ells was working with Jeremiah Tower at Stars — no small gig, and about as far from the Valencia Street taquerías as you can get.) But still, a burrito restaurant? That's not a lot to go on. And when the first Chipotle opened, in July of 1993 (with a rather poorly designed system where servers in the front had to shout orders to cooks in the back and no one seemed to know what, exactly, they were ordering), it was obvious that the concept could use some refinement.

So Ells opened up the kitchen, bringing the prep crew out into the light and allowing customers to see everything that they would be eating. They ordered as they moved in slow progression down an open counter and got to see their dinner being assembled (a system precisely like the one at Beaucoup), then got their finished grub and either ate sitting down in a nice, modern dining room or took it on the hoof. Though it didn't have a name at the time, what Ells had invented was the fast-casual model: nicer than a Taco Bell, not quite as formalized (with servers and menus and checks) as a Chili's.

"When I created Chipotle in 1993," Ells recalled in a company prospectus, "I had a very simple idea: Offer a simple menu of great food prepared fresh each day, using many of the same cooking techniques as gourmet restaurants. Then serve the food quickly, in a cool atmosphere. It was food that I wanted, and thought others would like too. We've never strayed from that original idea. The critics raved and customers began lining up at my tiny burrito joint. Since then, we've opened a few more."

From the start, his concept called for good ingredients, and over the years he's consistently improved on those ingredients. Good beef and pork became free-range Niman Ranch beef and pork. Plain beans became organic beans. Even after McDonald's bought majority control of the company in 1999 (the year Ells would see 37 stores up and running), Chipotle stayed true to its idea of starting with the best product and going from there.

Finally, Ells remembered good execution, too. Chipotle is not a fine-dining restaurant. The cooks in the back are not doing reductions and emulsions; they're not poring over Larousse for inspiration. Still, Ells came from a fine-dining background (he got an art degree in Boulder before heading to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and did enough white-jacket time before turning to the burrito game to be considered a serious pro) and a place that recognizes that good ingredients are best respected by their skillful use. Plenty of restaurants in this town do carnitas, but few turn out a carnitas burrito as good as the one I can get at any Chipotle in the city. That's a comment on the cooks (several thousand of them) that Ells employs. They understand that with a good concept and good ingredients, it's their job only to cook well and then get out of the way.

Good food, good concept, good execution. Screw up one of those three elements and you become a joke. A successful joke, sometimes — think McDonald's (no longer Chipotle's owner, by the way), with its good concept, good (if machine-like) execution and awful ingredients — but a joke nonetheless. Or, sadly, Beaucoup Burrito.

Leftovers: It looks like the economy is finally catching up with local restaurants. We've definitely lost Pizzeria Mundo (1312 17th Street), a noble, two-time attempt to bring the humble neighborhood pizzeria into the modern fusion world by offering a huge board of international pizzas (not unlike the list of international burritos being done at Beaucoup). John Pool had the initial, grandiose vision; last spring, his brother, Patrick, took over, instituting a much more restrained menu of more standard pizzas, sandwiches, salads and cheap beer. The return to sanity wasn't enough to save the place, though, and its complete invisibility due to a massive construction project didn't help; Mundo went down owing over $11,000 in back rent.

And you've got only a few more weeks to eat at Buenos Aires Grill (2191 Arapahoe Street); last week, the Carrera family sent out a note that the restaurant will be closed as of February 16. All things considered, I'm surprised it's lasted as long as it has. Not that the food isn't good (Buenos Aires Grill has the best blood sausage in town, and a menu that's like dying and going to meat heaven), and not that it isn't beautiful (golden and glossy inside, like the Titanic in permanent dry-dock, and with a lovely, tree-shaded garden patio) — but it rarely appeared to be doing enough trade to fill its main dining room, let alone the big overflow/banquet room downstairs. Fortunately, the family promises that Buenos Aires Pizzeria (1319 22nd Street) will stay open, offering the same kind of cross-border international melting-pot concept that couldn't save Mundo and is being done so poorly at Beaucoup. The difference? Buenos Aires Pizzeria actually does it well.

We also recently lost Maxwell's, at 7340 South Clinton Street in Englewood; Blackberries Bar & Grill, at 3090 Downing Street (the Blackberries coffee shop is still going strong on Welton); Pulcinella, at 1800 Lawrence Street; and, most interestingly, Aix, at 719 East 17th Avenue, which had been behaving like a restaurant looking toward the future (with menu changes and event dinners) right up until it suddenly closed last weekend. It's been purchased by the folks behind Duo (and on the line at Duo), who are planning to put a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant in the space, with an opening target of April.

Last week's bright spot was the opening of Heaven Star (7600 West 120th Avenue in Broomfield), a second restaurant from the folks behind Super Star Asian, Denver's Best Dim Sum joint. And Phoenix-based chef Mark Tarbell, who regularly wins Best Pizza honors with his pies at The Oven, has finally opened his long-awaited, long-promised second Denver restaurant, Mark & Isabella, at 425 South Teller Street in the Belmar project (the old Chama space), which is just spitting distance from the Oven.

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