Why are we obsessed with Chipotle?

Long lines and high prices are not stopping Chipotle Mexican Grill from growing in popularity faster than any other fast, casual restaurant.  Their amazing food and good customer service alone is enough to keep people waiting in line for 30 minutes, but many people do not realize the great business is behind the overstuffed burritos.

Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, opened the first restaurant in 1993 in Denver, Co. The company did surprisingly well and continued to grow.  By 1998 Ells had 16 locations, including the first store outside of Colorado in our neighboring city, Kansas City, Mo.  Thanks to investments by McDonald’s, Chipotle grew exponentially until 2006.  Even though McDonald’s divested all of its not-core business restaurants, this did not stop Chipotle.  The company now has over 1600 locations in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and France.

So, why is Chipotle so much more expensive than your average fast food restaurant?  It’s because it’s “fast casual.” From the beginning, Ells made it his goal to use organic produce and hormone-free, well-raised meat, and to pay his employees as much as he could.  The focus on the quality of the ingredients stands true today, although Chipotle workers probably do not get paid as well as they did in the 90’s.  Chipotle typically pays two percent below market, but similar companies typically pay five percent below market. Combining high food costs and slightly above average labor costs force Chipotle to increase the price of their food, but when you think about the healthy ingredients and imagine yourself tearing into a fresh, overstuffed burrito, you will not mind paying an extra couple of dollars for organic guacamole.

One last thing that I would like to rave about is the design of Chipotle stores.  They have this unique look about them that is a combination of industrial and Aztec art.  This started when Ells opened the first Chipotle. He did not have much money, so he used cheap sheet metal to decorate his store.  It gives it a somewhat trendy flare while keeping decoration cost low. Also, I noticed this past week that they use LED cluster lights.  They’re really the way of the future.

Overall, I give Chipotle four and a half out of five stars.  Their food is great, their concept is great and their ascetic is great.  The only thing I have a problem with is their pricing.  I personally would not have a problem paying a little extra for great food if it meant that the employees of Chipotle Mexican Grill could get paid a bit more, but Chipotle is still in its corporate infancy, so we will see where things go as we double fist steak burritos with cheese, hot salsa and guacamole.  Feast on, Jewelligans. Feast on.

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