The news broke yesterday: Chipotle is leaving town. The fast-casual Mexican chain, born in the Mile High City in 1993 (the same year 5280 published its first issue) under the leadership of founding CEO and Culinary Institute of America grad Steve Ells, was a game changer; affordable build-your-own burritos and rice bowls made with fresh, responsibly sourced ingredients was unlike anything else in the marketplace. And from that first store at 1644 E. Evans Ave. (which was just remodeled last fall), the brand became a behemoth—there are currently more than 2,400 Chipotle locations across the country.

Those restaurants will remain in business and their workers will stay employed. But by the end of the year, some 400 Denver and New York City employees may not be so lucky; Chipotle said in a statement that only some of those people will be offered relocation and retention packages as the company moves their roles to the new headquarters in Newport Beach or to its Shared Services Center in Columbus, Ohio. This, despite the December 2017 announcement that Chipotle had leased five floors of office space in a new skyscraper at 1144 15th Street in LoDo for its corporate headquarters. Why the sudden change in direction?

Brian Niccol, who took over as Chipotle’s new CEO in March after two years of food safety scandals, is surely behind the decision to leave the Centennial State. “We’ll always be proud of our Denver roots where we opened our first restaurant 25 years ago,” Niccol said in Chipotle’s official statement. “The consolidation of offices and the move to California will help us drive sustainable growth while continuing to position us well in the competition for top talent.”

Will that top talent come from Taco Bell, in nearby Irvine, California, where Niccol was CEO until his move to Chipotle? Will Niccol’s infamous drive to innovate turn quality-driven Chipotle into a Taco Bell redux? Drive-thrus and a DoorDash delivery partnership certainly indicates a philosophical shift, while yesterday’s announcement points to a new way forward—from a new home base.

Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s former food editor. She oversaw all of 5280’s food-related coverage from October 2016 to March 2021.