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Chipotle Grill Discovers Some Like It Hot

The menu may be small, but the food is big. At Chipotle (pronounced Chih-POAT-lay) Mexican Grill, tacos and burritos are the only menu items, but the 20-ounce burritos stuffed with fresh ingredients make for an entire meal.

"We have no can openers, no microwaves and no freezers," says Dan Fogarty, director of marketing for the Denver-based quick-service restaurant chain. "The customer can custom design the burrito."

The food at Chipotle is prepared in front of customers, allowing them to choose what they want in their burrito. The burrito starts with cilantro-lime rice on a tortilla, and guests can select from the following: black or pinto beans, grilled or braised meats, grilled vegetables, guacamole, shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped lettuce and three types of salsas. Servers add a little or a lot of each ingredient, depending on what the customer requests.

"We call it the gourmet restaurant where you eat with your hands," Fogarty says. "The company founder, Steve Ells, liked the concept of a large meal in a handy tortilla wrapped in foil. The burritos and tacos are all under $5."

Ells, now the company's CEO, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. After working for two years as a chef at a five-star restaurant in San Francisco, Ells came up with the idea of opening a quick-service burrito restaurant serving quality food at reasonable prices. The restaurant is named after the chipotle pepper, a jalapeno pepper that has been toasted and smoked.

The first Chipotle opened in Denver in 1993, near the University of Denver. The chain made national news last year when McDonald's Corp. became a minority investor in the company. There are now 24 locations open in Denver; Kansas City, Kan. and Mo.; Columbus, Ohio; and Minneapolis. By the end of this year, the company plans to open restaurants in Phoenix; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Dallas and Austin, Texas; Chicago; Cleveland; and Washington, D.C.

Currently, all the stores are company-owned. While Chipotle is in expansion mode, it doesn't have a long-term plan of where it will open new restaurants, says Rex Jones, director of real estate. "In the next six months we will be evaluating the entire Southeast," he says. "We will open in California in the first quarter of next year."

Chipotle has few restrictions on the type of sites it will consider. However, the company does not plan to open in mall food courts. Its existing stores are in pad sites, urban street locations and freestanding locations.

Chipotle looks for existing spaces, ranging from 1,800 to 2,800 sq. ft., that it can renovate. The company wants to be in either urban or suburban areas with a high-density daytime population.

"Originally we thought we would just be appealing to urban areas where there are a lot of young singles," Jones says. "Then we wondered, would this concept translate to a suburban site? We're actually a very adult-oriented concept, but kids love the food too."

Chipotle's atmosphere, with loud music and an urban feel, has been described as a "New York loft," Fogarty says. Because of the wide variety of real estate, each location is different from the next.

Despite their differences, all locations have similar design elements that highlight Chipotle's distinct look. Designed by Chipotle's director of design and development, L. Brand Gould, the restaurants incorporate steel, concrete, unfinished metals, birch-veneered plywood and large windows.

"We custom design every single location," Fogarty says. "The customers really like that every one of our restaurants is different. We have a huge repeat following. It's not uncommon for us to have a customer two to three times a week."

Contact: Rex Jones, director of real estate, Chipotle, 2546 15th St., Denver, CO 80211; (303) 390-0639.

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