Chipotle Mexican Grill is one of the most popular fast-casual restaurant chains in the United States, known for its burritos, tacos, and other Mexican-inspired dishes. Chipotle was founded in 1993 by Steve Ells in Denver, Colorado. Ells, who is not of Mexican descent himself, wanted to open a restaurant that served high-quality ingredients in a fast-food setting. The question of whether the Chipotle owner is Mexican is a common one, given the brand’s association with Mexican cuisine.
No, Steve Ells, the founder and current executive chairman of Chipotle, is not Mexican. He is a white American born in Indianapolis, Indiana. However, Ells was inspired by the taquerias and street food he tried during a study abroad program in San Francisco, leading him to open the first Chipotle restaurant selling Mission-style burritos.
The Origins of Chipotle and Founder Steve Ells
Steve Ells was born September 12, 1966 in Indianapolis, Indiana. His mother was a pharmaceutical executive and his father was a pharmaceutical scientist. Ells attended Boulder High School in Colorado and later graduated from the University of Colorado with a Bachelor’s degree in Art History in 1990.
During college, Ells took a semester off to study at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. It was there that Ells was first exposed to high-quality ingredients and classic cooking techniques.
After graduating from college, Ells worked for two years at Stars restaurant in San Francisco, honing his skills as a line cook. It was during this time that Ells often visited local taquerias and Mission-style burrito restaurants, fascinated by the simple, fresh flavors of the food.
In 1993, Steve Ells moved back to Colorado and opened the first Chipotle in a former ice cream shop near the University of Denver campus. Using money from his father, Ells focused on making food with high-quality ingredients prepared using classic techniques.
The original Chipotle restaurant served only a simple menu of tacos and burritos. Ells’s approach of using premium ingredients prepared fresh daily set Chipotle apart from other Mexican fast food chains like Taco Bell. Within a few years, Chipotle expanded to over 50 locations in Colorado and began attracting national attention.
Key Facts About Chipotle Founder Steve Ells
- He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1966
- His ancestry is mostly English and German, not Mexican
- Ells discovered a love for cooking while studying abroad in San Francisco
- He was inspired by the street food and taquerias of San Francisco
- Ells attended culinary school before founding Chipotle at age 26
- He opened the first Chipotle in Denver, Colorado in 1993
- Ells focused on naturally raised meat and fresh ingredients at Chipotle
- He served as CEO of Chipotle until 2017, when he became executive chairman
So while Steve Ells founded and built the Chipotle brand on its Mexican-inspired cuisine, he himself does not have any Mexican heritage. His passion for fresh, authentic ingredients inspired him to replicate the taqueria-style food he enjoyed in California.
The Evolution of the Chipotle Brand and Menu
The original Chipotle restaurant in Denver, Colorado focused on just a few simple menu items like tacos and burritos. Here is a timeline showcasing how the Chipotle brand and menu evolved over time:
The first Chipotle opens in Denver on July 13, 1993. The restaurant only serves tacos and burritos with a choice of chicken, steak, carnitas (pork), and barbacoa (beef).
Chipotle begins serving its signature Mission-style burritos, inspired by San Francisco burrito shops. The large burritos are wrapped in foil and filled with rice, beans, meat, and guacamole.
The first restaurant outside of Colorado opens in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Chipotle begins expanding nationwide.
Chipotle opens its first location in Ohio. By the end of the year, there are 16 Chipotle locations across the country.
Chipotle expands its menu to include burrito bowls, allowing customers to skip the tortilla but keep all the ingredients. The first kids’ meal is also test marketed.
Chipotle goes public and trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker CMG. The chain has over 500 locations by the end of 2005.
A vegetarian tofu-based Sofritas option is tested on the West Coast before rolling out nationally in 2013. Salads are also added to the permanent menu.
Chipotle launches a mobile ordering app and begins testing new menu items like quesadillas, nachos, frozen margaritas, and avocado tostadas.
Over its first 25 years, Chipotle grew from a single restaurant to over 2,500 locations nationwide, with more menu choices but the same commitment to real, responsibly-sourced ingredients.
|1993||First restaurant opens in Denver with limited menu|
|1995||Signature Mission-style burritos introduced|
|2001||Burrito bowls and kids’ meals debut|
|2007||Salads and tofu Sofritas added to menu|
|2017||Quesadillas, nachos, margaritas tested|
Steve Ells’s Food Philosophy and Business Approach
As the founder of Chipotle, Steve Ells instilled a particular approach to food that sets the chain apart from its competitors. His philosophy emphasizes:
- Premium ingredients – Chipotle commits to ingredients that are ethically raised, naturally grown, and sustainable. This includes naturally raised meats without antibiotics or hormones.
- Classic cooking techniques – Food is prepared using classic methods like grilling, simmering, and marinating, not just reheating.
- On-site prep – Food is prepped on-site daily in each restaurant, not processed and pre-made.
- Customizable dishes – Orders are customized to each person with options to select ingredients.
- Restaurant design – The spaces have an open kitchen and industrial warehouse aesthetic.
This approach allows Chipotle to serve food that tastes fresh and authentic. By controlling the entire process “farm-to-fork,” the chain isn’t at the mercy of suppliers’ preparation methods.
As a business, Chipotle also set itself apart with these strategies:
- Higher prices – Prices are slightly higher than other Mexican chains to account for higher-quality ingredients.
- Throughput – Restaurants follow a food assembly line process for efficiency.
- Limited menu – The menu is very selective compared to rivals.
- Speedy service – Orders are taken and filled quickly to minimize wait times.
By emphasizing freshness, customization, and efficiency, Chipotle succeeded in providing customers an elevated fast food experience. Steve Ells’s vision spawned an entirely new category of dining known as “fast-casual.”
Steve Ells on Chipotle’s Success
In an interview with Motley Fool, Ells attributed Chipotle’s success to four key factors:
- Using higher quality, responsibly raised ingredients
- Preparing food on-site using classic techniques
- Serving affordable food quickly with limited wait times
- Offering an excellent customer experience in a fun restaurant environment
Ells believes Chipotle’s long-term success comes from a relentless focus on exceeding customer expectations. By sticking to its purpose of serving Food With Integrity, Chipotle hopes to keep growing as a trusted lifestyle brand.
Recent Chipotle Controversies and Challenges
While Steve Ells spearheaded phenomenal growth for Chipotle, the company has faced some recent challenges including:
Food Safety Issues
- Multiple E. coli and norovirus outbreaks at various restaurants sickened hundreds of customers from 2015-2018.
- These food safety incidents damaged the brand’s reputation for fresh, high-quality food.
- New sanitation and food handling protocols were rolled out to prevent future issues.
- Over 10,000 employees sued Chipotle in 2016 for unpaid wages from requiring off-the-clock work.
- Chipotle had to pay a $20 million settlement in 2020 over these labor violations.
- The chain pledged to improve compliance and training around pay policies.
Fall in Same-Store Sales
- After the food safety incidents, Chipotle’s same-store sales numbers fell dramatically in 2016.
- Revenue dropped by over 20% as customers lost trust in the brand.
- New menu items and marketing campaigns eventually brought sales back to pre-crisis levels.
Despite these challenges, Chipotle remains a popular fast-casual choice, with over 2,750 locations globally. But the brand is still recovering consumer trust and workers’ confidence after stumbling in its response to the crises.
Leadership Transition and Current Status
In November 2017, founder Steve Ells stepped down from the CEO position at Chipotle. He handed the reins to Brian Niccol, former CEO of Taco Bell.
Reasons for the Transition
- Chipotle’s sales and stock price were suffering after the food safety incidents.
- Investors pushed for fresh leadership to rehabilitate Chipotle’s image.
- Ells was seen as an effective founder but not the ideal CEO to manage the crises.
- Niccol had success turning around Taco Bell with new menu innovations.
Ells supported the transition and returned to his role as executive chairman in 2018. He focuses on innovation and guiding the brand’s vision while Niccol handles day-to-day operations as CEO.
Chipotle Under New Leadership
Since Niccol took over, Chipotle has:
- Enhanced food safety and employee training programs
- Upgraded delivery options by adding pickup shelves and drive-thru lanes
- Invested in new marketing to attract younger generations
- Increased digital sales and rewards program membership
- Returned to steady performance with stock up 130% since Niccol’s hiring
Niccol’s tech and marketing background from Taco Bell helped Chipotle connect with changing consumer preferences. Under his leadership, the chain seems to have rebounded though time will tell if the growth continues.
Current Status of Chipotle (October 2023)
- Over 3,000 global restaurant locations
- Stock price recently reached all-time high around $1,800/share
- Digital and online sales account for nearly 40% of orders
- Opened over 200 new restaurants in the past year
- Plans to hire 15,000 new team members in coming months
Though still recovering in some ways, Chipotle remains the market leader in the “fast-casual” space with increasing sales and locations. The chain stays committed to Steve Ells’s original purpose while adapting to a new era under Brian Niccol’s leadership.
In summary, Chipotle founder Steve Ells is not Mexican himself. Born in Indiana and raised in Colorado, Ells was inspired by the taquerias of San Francisco to replicate that style of fresh, customizable Mexican food. His passion for real ingredients and classic cooking techniques defined Chipotle’s brand and menu for over 25 years.
While Ells stepped down as CEO in 2017 following food safety incidents and other challenges, he still serves as executive chairman, guiding the company’s vision and innovation. New CEO Brian Niccol has successfully rebounded sales and modernized operations using his experience from Taco Bell.
So while its founder isn’t Mexican, Chipotle remains heavily influenced by authentic Mexican flavors and food preparation. By staying true to its values of Food With Integrity, Chipotle continues to be a category leader and one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains nationwide. Though no longer CEO, Steve Ells’s impact on the brand and industry will persist for years to come.