Dreamers: Chipotle Founder Steve Ells | Reader's Digest

Dreamers: Chipotle Founder Steve Ells

Steve Ells dreamed of opening a gourmet restaurant. But first he needed a cash cow. That's how he got seriously sidetracked.

By Margaret Heffernan from Reader's Digest | October 2008
Dreamers: Chipotle Founder Steve EllsGina Levay

As founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill, Steve Ells has never come across advice he couldn’t ignore, conventional wisdom he couldn’t flout, a rule he couldn’t break.

“I was always quite rebellious and did things my own way,” recalls Ells. “Friends said Mexican food is cheap-you can’t charge $5 for a burrito. But I said this is real food, the highest-quality food. Friends said you can’t have an open kitchen, but I wanted the restaurant to be like a dinner party, where everyone’s in the kitchen watching what’s going on. They said people have to order their meal by number. But I said no, you have to go through the line and select your ingredients. And everyone gave me grief over the name: Nobody’ll be able to pronounce it!”

Ells opened his first Chipotle (pronounced chi-’poat-lay) in Denver 15 years ago. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he had long dreamed of running his own gourmet restaurant but needed to generate fast cash. He figured he’d open a taqueria and reinvent traditional Mexican food-lighten it up, make it sexier.

“I wanted layers of bold flavors that had nuance and depth, not just hot, not just spicy: cumin, cilantro, cloves, fresh oregano, lemon, and lime,” says Ells. “It looked, smelled, and tasted different from traditional fast food. And it didn’t take long before there was a line of people waiting to get in! So I thought, Maybe I’ll open just one more.”

Ells’s father, an executive in the pharmaceutical industry, invested $85,000 in the first restaurant. The second was funded with the profits and the third with a Small Business Administration loan. By the time Ells had a dozen restaurants, he’d given up on the idea of a single high-end one. He got the money for expansion from a surprising source, McDonald’s, first as a minority investor and then three years later as the majority shareholder.