Word of Mouth

Jonathan Gold weighs in on Chipotle founder Steve Ells

"The most innovative man in the world of food at the moment is Chipotle founder Steve Ells," writes Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic at Westword's sister paper, LA Weekly, in a profile of the CEO that ran in the Wall Street Journal late last week.

That's high praise from anyone, but it's especially weighty coming off the pen of one of the most influential writers in the food world. Gold goes on to cite the Denver-based chain's commitment to sustainably-raised meats, to local produce, to insights from chefs like Nate Appleman from Pulino's and Kyle Connaughton from the Fat Duck -- all characteristics that distinguish Chipotle from other fast-food chains and make a major impact on the food industry as a result.

"We're proving that you can run a very profitable company and still do the right thing," Ells told Gold. Revenues at Chipotle climbed above $2 billion last year.

This, despite the fact that Ells didn't get into this business because he was an entrepreneur looking to make big bucks -- the man is a classically trained chef. And the official company line is that he opened the first Chipotle on East Evans Avenue in an old Dolly Madison ice cream shop to make Mission-style burritos and save cash for his "real restaurant."

Ells never got his "real restaurant," but the influence of his background may be most revolutionary of all: Employees at Chipotle actually cook. "When our employees walk in in the morning, they see food," Ells told Gold. "They have to cook. At the restaurants, we chop cilantro, onions and limes two or three times a day. We make guacamole from fresh avocados. We have 27,000 employees now, and almost all of them are cooks."

As a result, food varies on a day-by-day basis even at the same restaurant. Employees are taught to taste so they can inform customers when jalapeños are hotter than usual, for instance, or avocados are tougher. This also means that the food at one restaurant can taste different from that at another restaurant a mile away, and so eaters build up loyalties to one spot over another. (For my money, one of the best Chipotles in Colorado is on Alameda and Logan.)

Ultimately, wrote Gold, Ells's "quiet insistence on well-raised meat and local and organic produce at his multibillion-dollar chain is changing the way America eats, one humongous burrito at a time."

And that, he concluded, puts the restaurateur at the forefront, ahead of "foie gras trucks," "$900 meals where you can't tell the entrees from the plates" and "mad chefs wielding liquid-nitrogen canisters."

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk