We don’t know what to say. Here we were planning our silver anniversary, and suddenly you tell us you’re leaving. For CALIFORNIA, of all places! (At least it’s not Texas, so we have some dignity left.)
We still remember when we met, 25 years ago this month. You were a small burrito restaurant in an old Dolly Madison ice cream parlor by the University of Denver. We didn’t know what to make of you. Heck, you didn’t know what to make of you. Your founder, Steve Ells, was a Culinary Institute of America snob slumming it until he could save enough cash to open a fine-dining spot. But he couldn’t stop himself from showing off those cooking chops, could he? Roasted chile and corn salsa; rice steamed with bay leaves and spiked with a touch of cilantro; chicken marinated in fresh oregano and black pepper. His flourishes made a seemingly ho-hum menu “quite unlike any you might have had before,” Rocky Mountain News matchmaker (and reviewer) Bill St. John promised.
It was. We fell hard for your locally sourced ingredients and quick-wrapping burristas. And we took our vows seriously. We supported you in health (when Bloomberg crowed in February 2015 about how you were the future of fast dining, with about 2,000 stores and a $700ish-a-share stock price) and in sickness (when, later in 2015, food-safety issues made your customers ill and your stock tumble).
Ells, who was spending most of his time in New York City, tried to boost sales with a temporary loyalty program and new queso. But you kept spiraling, which opened you up to come-ons from players who only wanted to use you for your stock price. Like investor Bill Ackman, who bought 10 percent of you and forced his way into two board seats.
Then, this past March, another man replaced Ells. We were skeptical of Brian Niccol from the start—for good reason. Niccol came from Taco Bell; the guy responsible for the Doritos Locos Taco would now be running the restaurant with the motto “Food with integrity.” Ha! But Ells promised the new CEO wouldn’t think (too far) outside the burrito, vowing Niccol would remain “true to our purpose and the values that are essential to our customers.”
We can’t believe we bought that cockamamie line. There are already whispers that Niccol, only a few months into the job, will roll out drive-thru windows for mobile pickups. He’s pouring money into advertising. Specialty menu items—like afternoon snacks and late-night munchies—are looming. And, of course, you’re taking up with some California floozy.
We suspect this is your way of dealing with middle age. Part of us wishes you had just bought a Miata. The better part of us understands that this split is for the best. After all, you’re no longer the restaurant we fell in love with.
So, fine. Go. It’s not like we don’t have faithful suitors who can slide into your spot as Colorado’s most iconic restaurant chain: Larkburger, Modern Market, Illegal Pete’s (whose queso wasn’t described on Twitter as “dumpster juice,” by the way). Plenty of fast-casual natives still love the Centennial State. They think our peaks are sexy. What’s California got besides Mt. Whitney? Oh yeah, even worse traffic and drought—and a future at the bottom of the ocean. We hope you’ll be very happy together.