By Clay Evans
For the Coloradan
Steve Ells (Art’88) vividly recalls the day in 2000 when his eyes were opened about factory farming.
He was visiting a hog farm in Thornton, Iowa, with Paul Willis, co-founder of San Francisco-based Niman Ranch, which farms, processes and distributes natural meat from humanely raised animals. Ells saw free-range hogs foraging, grunting and socializing, acting, in other words, like hogs.
After researching factory farms, he discovered hideous exploitation of animals and abuse of the environment.“I was thinking this was typical,” says Ells, founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill, the phenomenally successful chain of restaurants that focuses on a la carte burritos and other casual Mexican fare. “Paul told me the scene was rare, that 99 percent of all pork is raised in factory farms.”
“I didn’t want my success or Chipotle’s to be based on that,” he says.
So in 2001, eight years after it was founded, Chipotle began serving exclusively Niman Ranch pork, followed by commitments to provide natural and humanely raised beef, chicken and dairy products. The company also has launched efforts to be friendly to the environment and supportive of
His efforts have paid off. Last year the company had a net income of $178 million with 1,100 restaurants and more than 26,000 employees.
But Ells’ commitment to creating simple, tasty food made with fresh ingredients and integrity goes back even further than that first farm visit. Ells, who turns 46 on Sept. 12, says his mother always had gardens and served fresh vegetables and salads in their Boulder home.
Dinner was “an event,” he says. “It was often simple and straightforward, but . . . there was a sense of community.”
In junior high school he pored over cookbooks and cooking articles. By the time he reached Boulder High School, he was practicing his burgeoning cooking and hosting skills on a few lucky friends.
“Those were the first really grown-up meals I had,” recalls Gina Yarusso Skene (Dance’89), who met Ells in junior high. “He actually read Bon Appétit.”
In 1993 Steve Ells (Art’88) founded Chipotle Mexican Grill, which now boasts 1,100 restaurants and more than 26,000 employees. The company aims to be friendly to the environment and supportive of food producers and farm workers. Shown at right is the Chelsea London location.
Ells attended CU-Boulder to study art history. His first apartment on University Hill was a “real dump,” but he was still able to lure friends with food and drink. He says he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduating until his friend, Cindy Gueswel(Engl’88, MEdu’93), suggested he attend the famous Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
“I went because it was something to do besides going to graduate school or starting a real job,” Ells says, laughing. “But really, I was pursuing my passion for learning more about food and wine and restaurants.”
His apprenticeship under culinary superstar Jeremiah Tower at Star’s restaurant in San Francisco cemented his commitment to simple, fresh food. Tower, the original chef at the famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., was one of the pioneers of French-influenced California cuisine and an early promoter of sustainable, locally grown ingredients.
After studying under Tower, Ells returned to Boulder eager to start his own French-style restaurant. Lacking the funds, he remembered the California taquerías where he’d eaten burritos with everything on the inside — the ultimate fast food — and sketched out plans for Chipotle, the humble Mexican-style restaurant that was going to pay for the fancy French restaurant.
Chipotle, which is Mexican Spanish for smoked, dried jalapeño chili pepper, opened with little fanfare in Denver in 1993. But the concept took off, and within three years Ells had opened five more Denver locations. In 1999 the first Chipotle restaurants opened outside Colorado in Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio. The “everything on the inside” model, with an emphasis on grilled meats and a choice of salsas, made Chipotle not just popular but a forerunner of copycat chains.
But Ells says the company’s ethical stance sets it apart from those that came later. In addition to working to serve natural meat from humanely raised animals, Chipotle led the industry in 2004 by using zero-trans-fats frying oil. It also works to preserve the environment.
For example, since 2010 Chipotle has set a goal of using at least 50 percent locally grown products in season and is exploring buying beans that are grown with “no till” anti-erosion methods.
More recently the company has added fair treatment of farm workers to its menu. It helped negotiate a penny-per-pound pay increase for tomato harvesters in Immokalee, Fla.
Despite all those efforts, almost unheard of for a fast-food restaurant chain, Chipotle has received some criticism for its refusal to sign a “Campaign for Fair Foods” agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization of Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian workers in Florida. A small group of CU students protested Ells’ commencement speech in Boulder last spring over the issue.
Ells says it’s not a fair critique.
“Chipotle has always supported the CIW,” he says. “But the CIW wants us to sign a contract that would let them control Chipotle’s decisions regarding food in the future. It would be like you giving to a charity, and then the charity protesting you for not signing a contract forcing you to do what the charity tells you to do in the future.
“The bottom line is that Chipotle . . . does the right thing because that is the kind of company we are.”
Ells credits CU for giving him the ability to “look at the world in a broader way,” which has underpinned his entire career. And at a time when college is increasingly seen as mere vocational preparation for a high-paying job in finance or technology, Ells stoutly defends the importance of the liberal arts education.
“It’s really a luxury to be able to spend four years at an institution like CU where you can sort of be indulgent, go to lectures, read and study and think,” he says. “That’s really something. People in school should savor those years.”
First Chipotle opens at a former Denver Dolly Madison ice cream shop.
McDonalds invests, allowing company to grow from 16 locations in 1998 to 500 in 2005.
Starts serving naturally raised pork.
Starts serving naturally raised chicken
Goes public on New York Stock Exchange.
Stops using cheese or sour cream with rBGH (bovine growth hormone).
Ells testifies before Congress to eliminate use of antibiotics in ranching.
85 percent of Chipotle’s beef and all of its pork and chicken are naturally raised. First London restaurant opens.