Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Steve Ells

Fifteen years ago, the first Chipotle burrito shop opened its doors in Denver, Colorado. Not a big deal, right? There are thousands of similar restaurants across the country. But the founder of that store has shown remarkable acumen in turning a small group of high-quality fast food restaurants into a national institution. Additionally, the success of Chipotle (and what they've found in the apparent insatiable American appetite for burritos) has helped fueled the growth of competitors such as Qdoba, Moe's, and regional chains.

Steve Ells, an Art History graduate-turned-culinary student, had all the right stuff for leading a successful restaurant chain. To take it national, he needed capital. McDonald's had capital and one of the best distribution networks in the US. McDonald's initially bought a minority stake in the company five years after the first store opened, but quickly took a majority interest that lasted until the year of Chipotle's IPO in 2006. In the meantime, Chipotle grew to harbor over 500 stores.

Ells is today's hero because he is achieving his dreams with his own property and with the property of others who have been willing to invest in what they see as a profitable concept. Besides running a successful restaurant business, one of Ells' goals is to alter traditional methods of agriculture to make them more environmentally sustainable. With the clout of a man who knows how to make millions of diners happy, Ells is doing this in a way that fans of capitalism can appreciate. A theme at Chipotle is "food with integrity"and even if you don't buy into it, you should take the concept seriously. As American consumers become more conscious about where their food comes from, they are voting with their food dollars for new business practices. This is more powerful, and less disruptive, than government mandates.

Even if Ells was the typical caricature of a businessman, the uncaring, greedy capitalist who was only interested in enriching himself, he wouldn't be notable unless he gave people what they wanted. And what I want now, after writing this, is a Chipotle burrito.

2007 Businessweek profile
2006 Rocky Mountain News profile


Martin Lindeskog said...


I wrote a post on Chipotle in 2006. I am a "chilehead" so I look forward to test this.

Where should I go next time I visit America?

All the Best,

Martin Lindeskog - American in spirit.
Gothenburg, Sweden.

ann said...

MMmmmm Chipotle.

David said...

Well my current location, Chicago, has many awesome restaurants where you can find spicy cuisine. I'd say go to any area you can find large immigrant groups from regions with awesome food traditions. So that could mean any large city. What's the saying? In the US we don't do anything perfect but everything well. That is true with food!

Martin Lindeskog said...


Thanks for your help. I have been in Chicago twice. Once I attended a ARI donor meeting and the other time I went with a childhood friend.

Talking about Chicago, I will interview Jonathan Hoenig of CapitalistPig LLC in the near future.