In 1993, Steve Ells, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, had the bright idea that burritos and tacos could be a million-dollar industry. Besides receiving his pedigree from one of the best cooking schools in the country, Ells was also a sous chef for one of the founders of California cuisine, Jeremiah Tower at Stars, a very prominent restaurant in San Francisco.
Ells had fine dining on his mind when he opened Chipotle, hoping that the revenue from this business would help him open his first 4-star restaurant. So he got an $85,000 loan from his father to open his first Chipotle location in Denver, CO, right near the University of Denver.
Image Source: Fundable
Chipotle’s concept was unique in the early 90s and foreshadowed the farm-to-table craze that would hit the nation over the next couple of decades. Chipotle has always prided itself on serving burritos and tacos with fresh, high-quality ingredients. And that was exactly how Ells started his concept.
In the fast food world this was a revolutionary idea, and Chipotle’s commitment to excellent ingredients was recognized by Denverites almost immediately. Ells and his father calculated that they would need to sell a little over 100 burritos in a day to turn a profit, but within one month they were selling well over 1,000, exceeding the father-and-son team’s wildest dreams.
The second store opened in 1995, with the third following the next year, all in Colorado. Soon the success of these fast, casual Mexican eateries caught the attention of the McDonald’s corporation who, in 1998, decided to become a major investor in the company. They put $360 million into the promising business, allowing Chipotle to open up stores all across the United States. By 2005, Chipotle operated over 500 stores, solidifying how innovative Steve Ells’s concept was and how much potential it had in the American restaurant market.
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Why is it Called Chipotle?
The company took its name from the Mexican dried and smoked jalapeno pepper that is common in cooking all across the country. Chihuahua, which is a northern state in Mexico, produces most of the world’s chipotles, and the word comes from the Nahuatl language, also known as Aztec. The original word is chilpoctli, which means exactly what the pepper is, “smoked chili.” Chipotle peppers are used in numerous Mexican dishes, but perhaps they are best known for being a key ingredient in certain salsas and marinades, especially adobo.
The name brought an authenticity as well as a fiery connotation to Ells’s burgeoning business and is now known throughout the country as well as Canada where there are currently 14 stores.
Though Steve Ells has recently stepped down as CEO of Chipotle, and there have been some food safety scares over the last few years that have caused their business to slump a bit, it was Ells’s vision of introducing quality Mexican fast food to the American market that made the company a phenomenon right from the start. Though the name is simple, it introduced Americans to an important Mexican ingredient that is now known by almost everyone in the country. Can you think of any other businesses that introduced a previously unknown word to the U.S.? Comment below!
Travis McDonald is a professional freelance writer who creates content for a wide variety of clients. He received his bachelor’s in English from The University of Texas at Austin and his MFA in creative writing from Virginia Tech.