Chipotle Founder Gained Success with Burritos While Dreaming of Fine Dining

Chipotle Chief Executive Officer Steve Ells opened a tiny burrito shop in 1993 as a means to fund his dream of opening a fine dining establishment – little did he know that soon, he would have a Mexican food empire on his hands.

Ells, a chef, saw a market for a Mexican food restaurant. There was a great deal of small taquerias and burrito stands in the Mission District of San Francisco, where he was working at Stars restaurant – but back in his home state of Colorado, nothing like that existed. In 1993, he got a loan from his father to start the business, which he hoped would just be a small venture that would eventually fund his dream of becoming the owner of an upscale restaurant.

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Ells’ restaurant attracted college students from the University of Denver, and business soon flourished. Just three years later, he had repaid his father’s loan and opened two additional locations. By 1998, McDonalds invested in Chipotle, giving the company $380 million by 2001. In 2006, when Chipotle was ready to go public, McDonalds divested. On the first day of trading, shares closed at $44, more than double its initial public offer.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Chipotle, however. In 2014, Ells and his Co-CEO, Monty Moran, were heavily criticized for their $50 million combined salaries. Then, a Boston-area Chipotle suffered an outbreak of norovirus and the bacteria E. coli, which further strained Chipotle’s image in the public eye.

In 2016, though, the chain began a reinvention of its image. It changed its employee sick leave policy – as it was thought that an employee was the one who spread norovirus to the customers – it reworked its foot safety protocols, and it attracted customers with free food offers. Now, Ells and Moran have both stepped down, paving the way for a new CEO to continue growing the burrito empire, and Ells is currently heavily involved in real estate investing.