Secrets of America's Favorite Restaurants: Chipotle Elevates Fast Food

Chipotle, using organic ingredients, bucks the image of a fast food chain.

September 14, 2010, 1:12 PM

Sept. 15, 2010 — -- A deliciously simple mathematical formula has transformed Chipotle from a single Mexican restaurant into a nationwide fast food chain with a cult-like following.

The menu posted in each of its 1,000 fast-food restaurants is limited to just four main items – burritos, tacos, burrito bowls and salad bowls. Yet, by inviting patrons to customize their orders, each of those staples can be served in up to 65,000 variations, said founder and CEO Steve Ells.

"People have been asking me for years now why don't I expand the menu," Ells said. "I think it's simple. If you can focus on just a few things and do them better than anyone else, people are going to recognize that quality and they are going to come back again and again."

And they do. Each day, 750,000 customers eat at Chipotle, named after a dried or smoked Jalapeno pepper. Many are drawn by the high quality of its produce and meats, mostly organically grown or raised naturally and often sourced from local farms.

"We spend a lot of time going out to farms sourcing free-range pigs that have never been given antibiotics or hormones," Ells said. "We're serving beef that doesn't have antibiotics and hormones. We are serving organic beans and, when in season, local produce that comes from farms that are close to the restaurants."

The result is a loyal cadre of customers, including one smitten enough to write and record a YouTube song about Chipotle. "Chipotle is the greatest place. Tastes so good, in your face… Sauce so great, makes me want to masticate," croons the fan.

That kind of devotion comes from shattering fast food expectations and instead serving minimally prepared natural ingredients. Chipotle's mission is to make the fast food experience better by introducing what is now the company's core motto: Food With Integrity.

"Everything we do is not typical fast food," Ells said. "We are bringing people into the kitchen because we want to show them fresh cilantro and fresh guacamole that we are mashing. Grilling chicken and constantly making fresh batches of rice. … Cilantro lime rice has the lime. … Fajita vegetables, those are great, we sauté them with fresh oregano."

From a Single Restaurant in Denver to a Chain of 1,000

Each restaurant is set up to draw customers in line through the kitchen, where they order customized versions of the four primary menu items. The kitchen is a comfort zone for Ells, who started out as a classically trained chef with a dream of opening a high end restaurant. Back in 1990, when he was fresh out of cooking school, the Colorado native decided to raise the money for his dream by opening a "little cash cow" named Chipotle in Denver.

"Chipotle was that vehicle to fund my full-scale restaurant," Ells said. "But the first one did so well I thought 'I'll start one more' and the second one did even better and on and on."

Today, the Chipotle chain uses up more than 126 million tortillas and 45 million pounds of chicken in an average year. Each and every day, 82,000 pounds of avocadoes are mashed for guacamole. The food is served fast but that doesn't put it in the same category as most fast food, Ells said.

"I think most people associate fast food with cheap, highly processed food that's not good for you, not any type of dining experience, more of just fuel. We at Chipotle don't think it has to be that way," said Ells. "We spend hours and hours prepping in the morning, chopping up onions and marinating meat. We're serving people very quickly so it's fast but it's not typical fast food."

Staff Hiring Requirement: Personality Over Experience

Chipotle strives to elevate the image of its fast food by using sustainably raised ingredients prepared according to classic cooking methods and served in an interactive format. It seems to have worked.

"I don't usually go to fast food restaurants," a customer told ABC News. "Chipotle is different. I don't view Chipotle as a fast food restaurant."

Food is only part of the dining experience and Chipotle is trying to rachet up both restaurant atmosphere -- with walls decorated with Mayan themed artwork -- and customer service.

"To provide great service you need great people," said Ells. When he hired his team of 25,000 employees, he considered a strong work ethic and positive outlook over the need for work experience. "We hired for great personality, people who are infectiously enthusiastic about serving great Chipotle food and making people happy."