July 27 2008, 8:13 AM
The Rocky Mountain News profiles the success and Colorado roots of the popular Mexican fast food chain Chipotle, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary and is now the largest "fast casual chain" in the nation. Chipotle was started by Steve Ells who had a vision that can be summed up as "food with integrity" -- a philosophy that involved more than the just the financial landscape. When success came, the company shared it with their employees through stock options, sabbaticals and other benefits. It struck a chord with me because my son's first job during high school was at the Chipotle store on Alameda and Logan. I used to drive him there after school and pick him up at closing. Sitting in the parking lot waiting for him, I would watch him through the big glass window energetically mopping floors. When he came out, he always had a smile on his face. He loved that job. Years later, while at N.Y.U., he called me with the news that Chipotle was opening in New York, right near him in Greenwich Village. Of course, he went in and got a job. The store was so popular that his one of his jobs was to be the "greeter", walking the line of people waiting to get in, making pleasant conversation. He got a lot of dates. He stayed with them through his first year of law school when studying took too much of his time to hold a steady shift. They tried to get him to go into their management program, and while he declined, he still went back frequently to share a burrito and catch up with his co-workers. Even now, back in Denver as a lawyer, his Chipotle visits still start with conversations with the employees -- it's like a bond they share. I don't know if Chipotle still does it, but they used to put a coupon in the paper offering a free burrito to customers bringing in their mothers on Mother's Day. That started a ritual with us, and we still try to go in on that day every year. Usually, when conglomerates buy into a restaurant chain like McDonald's did with Chipotle, I can sense a shift from the mom and pop atmosphere. I don't notice it at Chipotle. I think that's a credit to Steve Ells, his vision and Chipotle's well-rewarded employees.