Chipotle Mexican Grill is credited for creating the fast-casual restaurant model of high-quality, customizable food assembled in front of guests. It was founded in Denver in 1993 by Steve Ells, a Culinary Institute of America graduated who interned at San Francisco fine-dining landmark Stars after graduation. Chipotle’s signature burritos are based on the Mission-style burritos of San Francisco that Ells came to appreciate during that time.
McDonald’s Corp. took a minority stake in Chipotle in 1998, when it had around 16 restaurants, and later owned a majority of it — 90% — before selling it back to Ells in 2006, having grown it to around 480 units.
During its ownership by McDonald’s, Chipotle began sourcing its pork from Niman Ranch and developed the chain’s “Food with Integrity” approach to sourcing.
The chain enjoyed rapid growth until 2015, when a series of e. coli outbreaks damaged its reputation and caused a rapid decline in sales. Ells stepped down as CEO in 2017, although he remained executive chairman until March 2020, and was replaced by former Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol, who moved the chain’s headquarters from Denver to Newport Beach, Calif., and helped return it to growth with investments in digital technology and menu innovation.
Key Data: Chipotle
Headquarters: Newport Beach, Calif.
Restaurant Segment: LSR Mexican
Number of U.S. Locations: 2,708
2020 Sales: $5.43 billion
Source: Datassential Firefly 500
CEO: Brian Niccol