Steve Ells, the founder, chairman and co-chief executive of Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., set out two decades ago to reinvent the notion of fast food.
A Culinary Institute of America graduate who once worked as a chef at the celebrated San Francisco restaurant Stars, Ells was inspired by the tiny taquerias of the Mission District, which served fast and affordable food. Ells decided to take that model, but elevate the menu by applying classic cooking techniques used in high-end restaurants.
The first Chipotle opened in Denver in 1993. At the time, Ells planned to use the concept to fund his dream of opening a fine-dining restaurant, but Chipotlebecame such a success that he never had the chance.
Today, the chain boasts more than 1,550 units and holds a market capitalization of nearly $16.7 billion. Chipotle is not only the undisputed leader in the growing fast-casual space, but also an increasingly emulated brand. It is hard to count how many restaurant concepts describe themselves as “the Chipotle of” their segment.
But it is Ells himself who may actually build the next Chipotle-inspired brand. In 2011 Chipotle debuted the promising ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen brand. The concept follows the Chipotle model but with cuisine that borrows from Southeast Asia. Guests build their rice or noodle bowls with a choice of proteins, salad, vegetables, sauces and toppings. There are now six ShopHouse units open — three each in the Washington and Los Angeles markets — and more to come this year.
More recently, Chipotle has partnered with Boulder, Colo. restaurateurs Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson to begin to grow a fast-casual pizza concept called Pizzeria Locale. The first location opened in Denver in May 2013, and two more are scheduled to open there soon.
Watch a video of Steve Ells discussing Chipotle's early years
Terms of that partnership were not disclosed, but Chipotle holds the option of acquiring a majority stake in the concept, lessening the financial risk in the eyes of Wall Street analysts, who largely hailed the deal as another growth opportunity.
Ells, however, has repeatedly emphasized that the company is not shifting growth away from its core concept, which has plenty of room for expansion both in the U.S. and overseas. The company plans to open between 180 and 195 units in 2014. In addition, Chipotle’s year-old catering program, which has been in test in only a handful of markets and already accounted for 1 percent of sales as of October, is expected to roll out systemwide this year.
Most who attempt to borrow from Chipotle tend to focus on customization. But just as important is the brand’s emphasis on “Food With Integrity” — Chipotle’s guiding principle to use ingredients that are organic, locally sourced, and ethically and sustainably raised. In 2013, Chipotle said it would eliminate as many genetically modified organisms as possible from its supply chain.
With a number of chains recently pledging to address quality, animal welfare and sustainability, Ells’ commitment to these principles, and consumers’ support of them, is clearly impacting the industry as a whole.