Chipotle: Steve Ells In 1992, Steve Ells was a classically trained chef working in a high-end restaurant in San Francisco. But after eating a burrito at a local taqueria, he got an idea: to sell burritos and earn enough money to open his own gourmet restaurant. The first Chipotle opened in Denver the following year. Bringing his culinary training to taqueria-style service, Steve Ells helped transform the way we eat fast food. PLUS for our postscript "How You Built That," how Alexander Harik turned his mom's recipe for za'atar spread—a fragrant Middle Eastern condiment—into Zesty Z: The Za'atar Company.
NPR logo

Chipotle: Steve Ells

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/560458221/560460264" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Chipotle: Steve Ells

STEVE ELLS: Over a one-month period, 52 people got sick with E. coli.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Were you freaking out?

ELLS: Well, freak - I don't know if freaking out is the right way to describe it. I mean, it was just all-encompassing. I mean, it was, like - it was really intense. You know, you wouldn't wish this on anybody - you know, that anyone would get sick from the food that you served them is really a tough thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built. I'm Guy Raz, and on today's show, how Steve Ells turned his love for San Francisco's Mission-style burritos into Chipotle, a restaurant that launched America's fast, casual food craze.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So there's a famous TED Talk by a guy named Barry Schwartz. It's called "The Paradox of Choice." And in it, Barry explains that virtually all current research on human behavior supports this idea that we humans, we don't really like to have too many choices.

Anything beyond 4 to 6 actually makes us anxious and unhappy, which could help explain the success of Chipotle because if you've ever been in one, you can probably tell me the menu by heart - burrito, bowl, salad, tacos - four options, that is it. There isn't a whole lot to agonize over. And it's one of the reasons why Chipotle just exploded in the 2000s. On the eve of the millennium, the company had just a bit more than 20 stores. And today, Chipotle has nearly 2,300 locations across the U.S. and in four other countries. And its value is around $14 billion.

Now, Chipotle, as you will hear, was never meant to become what it became. It was supposed to be a one-off burrito joint in Denver, a burrito joint that would generate enough cash to finance a high-end restaurant. That was Steve Ells' plan. He's actually a classically trained chef, and he wanted to make Michelin Starred food, not foil-wrapped burritos.

ELLS: You know, the earliest recollection I have of being in the kitchen and cooking was in the third grade, and we lived in Germany. And I remember cooking scrambled eggs.

RAZ: How'd you make them? Did you scramble them before? Did you crack the eggs into the pan to scramble them? Or did you scramble them before?

ELLS: No, no, I scrambled them before...

RAZ: OK.

ELLS: ...With a fork...

RAZ: OK.

ELLS: ...And a bowl.

RAZ: Right.

ELLS: And then my mom had a very well-seasoned cast-iron skillet.

RAZ: Nice.

ELLS: I mean, it was very, very smooth and almost nonstick. And I used to push the curds into the center in a square shape, a perfect square, maybe three by three or three and a half by three and a half, something like that. And then when it was just set enough, I would flip it over. And, I mean, it was very controlling. Like, and this says a lot about me because I'm a little bit of a control freak. And, of course, I had no idea then. But, I don't know, it's an interesting memory.

RAZ: Like, at what point did you start to - 'cause I've read, like, stories about you in college where you'd - you had dinner parties and people were like, what is this butter that you butter? You know, you'd make, like, duck confit and stuff. Like, how did you even know about this? How did you get into food at such a young age?

ELLS: You know, well, you know, my mom was a very adventurous cook and a really good one. And she had a garden, and she got all the cooking magazines and had a lot of cookbooks. And I used to spend time in the kitchen and follow along. And at some point, I started watching cooking shows - Julia Child and Graham on the "Galloping Gourmet" and the PBS series the "Master Chefs" series. I really loved those and would duplicate the recipes and liked to cook for, you know, my family. And then when I was older in high school, I started having people over.

RAZ: So you go to college in Boulder, right?

ELLS: Yes.

RAZ: And you study art history.

ELLS: I did. You know, of course it made zero sense to my father. What do you do with an art history degree?

RAZ: Would he say that to you? Would he be like, so what are you going to do with an art history degree?

ELLS: Of course. And I would say, you know, I don't know. We'll see how this unfolds. And probably I was thinking that I would continue and go to graduate school. But my roommate suggested to me that I go to cooking school. She said this just weeks before graduation.

RAZ: Why did she suggest that?

ELLS: Well, she knew I was into cooking. And I think she had visited The Culinary Institute of America and said, Steve, you would love this place. So I applied, and I went - and only went because, you know, I don't think I knew exactly what I wanted to do. So it was an adventure. But I would say there was a halfway point where you go for a few months and work in a restaurant of your choice. And I chose to work at Stars restaurant in San Francisco.

RAZ: This was the most famous restaurant - like, one of them in America at the time. Jeremiah Tower - right? - was the head chef.

ELLS: It was a really important restaurant. And I had eaten at Stars a few times when I was in college and loved it.

RAZ: What was he like? I mean, 'cause, I mean, I've read a little bit about him and, like, Mario Batali worked for him - tons of really famous chefs. Anthony Bourdain, like, produced a documentary about him. What was he like to work for?

ELLS: It's hard to describe really what he's like. I will say that he's an amazing visionary and quite a perfectionist. And so it was high pressure for sure. And it was super, super stressful, really, really hard work. But you would put your dishes up and all the cooks would put their dishes up and Jeremiah would come along and taste. And, you know, it was - it ranged from, you know, a nod, like, you know, good job, to picking up the plate and throwing it in the trash, which was, (laughter) you know, really traumatic.

But I loved it. I really did. And I'm lucky to have been able to work there.

RAZ: When you were first in San Francisco, did you encounter burritos or food that you would eventually, you know, would change your life?

ELLS: Sure. Well, the idea for Chipotle is a sort of combination of food borrowed from Stars and sort of a technique and a service format borrowed from the taquerias.

RAZ: In San Francisco?

ELLS: In San Francisco, mostly in the Mission District.

RAZ: What was so special about those taquerias? Like, what did you notice?

ELLS: There were a few of them, and they were quite good. And I used to go to these places before work. And the first time I went, a friend of mine took me, and I got the burrito. It was probably a carnitas burrito - giant flour tortilla and all the things on the inside, the rice, the beans, the meat, salsa, cheese, et cetera, and then wrapped up and then wrapped in foil. And I take it to the counter and I unwrap it. And he's like, what are you doing? And I'm like, I'm unwrapping my burrito.

RAZ: You take all the foil off.

ELLS: I take the foil off. He says, no, no, no, no, you peel the foil back and, you know. I'm like, oh, gosh. OK, let me rewrap and try this again. And I loved it. I just - I was intrigued. You know, growing up in Colorado, this is not how we ate burritos. Burritos were on a plate and then smothered with green chili. And you ate them with a knife and fork. And so this was a really interesting experience for me. And I went a lot. And I just started counting the number of people going through the line.

And thinking, oh, my gosh, these are five bucks apiece. I did some quick math. There's a couple of guys cooking, a couple guys serving. How much do they make? So, you know, on the napkin, I was like, wow, OK, this is a pretty good economic model. Of course, I wasn't calling it an economic model then. I just said, oh, I could probably make some money with this. And with that money, I could afford to open up my full-scale restaurant.

RAZ: OK, just to understand, you thought that a taqueria could earn you enough money that you could open up a fine dining restaurant, right?

ELLS: Well, I mean, that seemed logical to me that - I mean, that seemed like the way to do it.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And, you know, these burrito shops, these taquerias were small, the investment would be low, the rent certainly was low. And there were lines out the door. And I thought that I could make enough money to fund my full-scale restaurant. And so I knew I wanted to move back to Colorado to start this.

RAZ: Why?

ELLS: Well, there's nothing like it in Colorado.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: I certainly didn't want to compete with all the taquerias in the Mission. It was not - it wouldn't be novel to anybody.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: Maybe it would be really good. Maybe I could make better burritos. But again, I thought I wanted to go to a place where no one had seen this style of service before.

RAZ: And by the way, how did you figure out how to do the recipes? I mean, obviously, you're a chef, but, you know, there's techniques and there's ways of really making refried beans or pinto beans or whatever it was and carnitas. How did you come up with your method?

ELLS: Sure. Well, Stars was really good training. You know, we would come in at noon and, you know, we would learn at that time what we were going to cook that evening. And, you know, there wasn't a set menu, per se. And there weren't recipes, per se. You had to, you know, figure it out based on the style of the restaurant and what, you know, Jeremiah and Mark (ph), the executive chef wanted. And so it wasn't like I had to, you know, labor over the recipes. It's relatively simple food. Or I should say, it's really simple food at Chipotle.

RAZ: So - all right, so you wanted to go back to Colorado. And, I mean, was the idea to maybe open it up in Boulder, Colo.?

ELLS: Yeah, I thought I would open it up in Boulder and had trouble finding a location that I liked, that I could afford. Nothing seemed right. And a friend of mine was working in Denver and somehow met a commercial real estate broker. I went to his office and made a pitch and just said, here's what I'm thinking of doing. And I described Chipotle pretty much as you see it today. And he said, wow.

RAZ: What was your description to him? What was it going to be?

ELLS: Well, you know, I described the food. I described the service format. I said, first of all, you know, it's going to be an open kitchen. And we're going to be grilling meats and cooking whole beans and mashing avocados for guacamole and grating the cheese and dicing the tomatoes and jalapenos and onions and chopping fresh herbs like cilantro and oregano. And, you know, he seemed very excited about the prospect. And so he said, well, give me about a week. I'll identify, you know, a few potential real estate sites, and we'll go on a tour. And we saw a Dolly Madison ice cream store - this was the first site we saw - near the University of Denver campus. And it was 850 square feet. It was in terrible condition. It needed a lot of work. I think the rent was $800 a month...

RAZ: Wow.

ELLS: ...Or something like that.

RAZ: That's pretty good.

ELLS: Yeah, basically nothing. And so I convinced my father to lend me the money. It was actually, you know, part investment, part loan.

RAZ: How much did you need at that point? This is '93.

ELLS: I - you know, I forget how much I told him initially. But it ended up being $80,000, $85,000.

RAZ: So it was a substantial but not insane amount of money. I mean, you basically needed that money to clean up the place and make it look nice?

ELLS: Yeah. I mean, I had to strip off the vinyl tiles on the floor to reveal the oak wood floor underneath, which I refinished and painted the walls and built out a kitchen and tiled it and put up stainless steel and on the walls in the kitchen...

RAZ: Who designed all that stuff?

ELLS: Well, so I had an architect of record to get the permit and found a contractor and then sort of designed and built as we go. And I was there every day, and I was hands-on helping them build the thing.

RAZ: Do you have just a natural design aesthetic? Is that - like, are you - is it just, you know, something that you're naturally good at?

ELLS: Well, I would say that the design aesthetic came out of the necessity to be frugal. So the table bases were pipes. The service counter was faced with barn metal - just materials that were inexpensive and that were easy to install. And I remember making the table tops with the contractor. And we were applying the stainless steel to the top of the plywood. And then he wanted to put stainless steel on the edges also. And I said, no, no, no, no, you have to let people see the plywood. They have to see the striations of the plywood.

They have to see the striations of the plywood. They have to see how it's built. And so the aesthetic for Chipotle was very much about how it was put together.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And I think this spoke to the food. So as you looked past the counter into the kitchen, you could see the basic ingredients. You could see, you know, chicken and steak and avocados and rice and beans and all the things and how it was simply put together. And so I think this connection to the built environment was something that made the brand special. And I don't think it was obvious to most people.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: I don't think - I mean, it wasn't even obvious to me at the time.

RAZ: So you open the first store in 1993, right?

ELLS: Right.

RAZ: And it was just going to be, like, a temporary thing?

ELLS: Yes. This was going to be one restaurant. And this was going to be a cash cow that could fund and help support a full-scale restaurant. You know, I knew that full-scale restaurants were a dicey proposition. I mean, they go out of business often. It's hard to make margins, very difficult to operate. And so I wanted Chipotle to be a backup.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: I deliberately made it very simple to operate - only a few items and simple cooking techniques, not a lot of ingredients and able to operate with just a handful of crewmembers.

RAZ: How did you come up with a name Chipotle? Because I remember when I first saw a Chipotle, I knew what a Chipotle pepper was but I was like, how is that pronounced? Is it - and this is, like, in, you know, in, like, the mid-90s. I was like is it Chipotle? Or is it key-potle (ph)? Like how - and I could not have been the first one. So how did you come up with that name?

ELLS: So I knew always that I was going to use Chipotle peppers in the marinade and, you know, for the braise for the barbacoa, in the beans. And I wanted to use chipotle because it really adds a depth. It's not about the heat, necessarily, but a smoky character that I think really adds complexity to the food.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And I was introduced to chipotle peppers at Stars. And Jeremiah was a big fan of Southwest cuisine. And it just occurred to me as I was looking at a can of chipotle peppers and I said, oh, my God, that's the name. I'll call it Chipotle. And, of course, nobody knew what a chipotle was. And everyone thought I was silly for choosing a name that people couldn't pronounce.

RAZ: What do people say when you said, oh, here's the name, it's Chipotle. And people are like, what?

ELLS: Well, yeah. So imagine choosing a name that people can't pronounce and they don't know what it means.

RAZ: So did you ever think maybe they're right? Maybe this isn't the right name?

ELLS: Chipotle was not an easy place. I remember customers coming in and have to say, well, what is that place? Chi-pootle (ph), Chi-potel (ph), Chipol-te (ph) - all kinds of pronunciations.

RAZ: (Laughter) Chi-pootle.

ELLS: No, I've heard it all. And then you had to walk up to the counter and actually sort of build your burrito. And this was confusing to a lot of people. They said, well, what do you have? And I said, well, we have all these things here. There's burritos and in the burrito, I can put rice and beans and meats and salsas. I mean, you look - you think about it now and it just seems so obvious how you would use chipotle. But in the early days, it was a very novel experience. It was also a novel experience to have an open kitchen so close to the customer. I mean, the grill was just a few feet away from customers. And so they were really involved in the production that was, you know, the cooking and the service.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And it was it was by design. I mean, you know, every time you have a dinner party, people are in the kitchen. People want to be in the kitchen. And so Chipotle was designed to invite people in, to bring them close to where the action is.

RAZ: And you were the chef and also the cashier. And you had like a couple of people helping you at the beginning. Was that it?

ELLS: Well, I opened with really only a handful of people. And I asked some of my friends if they wanted to help work the line. And...

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: ...It was really sort of cobbled together.

RAZ: And did you - did you just make stuff, or did you actually have recipes written down?

ELLS: No, no no, no. There was nothing written down. I just made stuff. Guy, the menu was developed the day before I opened.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And it was interesting because when I trained the cooks how to make all the different, you know, ingredients it was how I learned at Stars. It was about technique and then about tasting as you go. And it just didn't occur to me to write down recipes...

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: ...Because I wanted people to taste the food and really understand the techniques of cooking, not just think about adding, you know, a cup of this, a tablespoon of that and be done with it. Probably when we opened, I can't imagine there was another fast food restaurant where the crew actually tastes the food. I just don't think they did that, right?

RAZ: Yeah. You start this restaurant. And, like, what? Are people immediately - is it a hit right away? - because you said a burrito in Colorado was this thing on a plate smothered in green chili sauce. So did all of a sudden people say, all right, burritos - San Francisco-style burritos here in Denver?

ELLS: So I remember opening on July 13. And I opened for dinner. It was mostly friends. And I think the sales the first day were probably $240 or something like that - and the next day, a little bit more - and the next day, a little bit more. And we sort of - we got faster and more efficient. And word spread pretty quickly. And students got back to campus in September. And so that helped business a little bit. But the turning point was in October...

RAZ: ...Of '93.

ELLS: ...Of '93. And the restaurant reviewer for the Rocky Mountain News was named Bill St. John. And he came in a few times and then introduced himself and said, hey, I've been in a few times. And I'm going to write a restaurant review. I said, yeah, that's great. How's the review going to be? And he said, well, I'm not going to tell you. (Laughter) I'm like, OK.

And the next day a review came out, and it was a really glowing review. And there was one particular sentence that stood out. And it - and I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like this. Chipotle is unlike any fast food you've had. Everything has depth, character, nuance and layers of flavor. I like that. That really struck me. I'm like, well, this guy has got it because when I think about cooking and seasoning food, I'm thinking about those things. And what happened next, though, we were completely unprepared for.

RAZ: What happened?

ELLS: A line out the door that did not stop...

RAZ: Just mobbed.

ELLS: Mobbed - and we ran out of food the first day. And so we got a bigger order the next day and ran out of food the second day and just could not keep up.

RAZ: And that started a chain of events that would forever change the way we think of fast food. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz. You're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So it's October 1993. Chipotle has a single store in Denver that's been open a few months. And it got a great first review from a local paper. And people started showing up to buy burritos, like a lot of people.

ELLS: It was crazy, crazy busy. And remember, this is 850 square feet total.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And so a little less than half of that was the kitchen.

RAZ: So you were presumably profitable in your first year.

ELLS: Oh, I was profitable in the first few months.

RAZ: Wow.

ELLS: And I remember paying my dad back the loan part, you know, probably that year.

RAZ: And still taking a salary for yourself?

ELLS: You know, at that point, I was living in the basement of a friend's house in a couch in the basement. And I slept on the couch. I was working from first thing in the morning until, you know, late at night and doing that, well, every day.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And I remember I paid my dad back. And he said, well, Steve, wait a minute. You can't be making that much money. And I said, Dad, I really - I think it's doing very well. And you know. He knew that I hadn't taken any business classes and had never demonstrated an ability to balance my checkbook or be frugal about organizing my finances. So he said, well, you really ought to get a bookkeeper. I said, well, I do have one. He goes, well, really? Let me sit down with him next time I'm in town. And I'm like, all right. And so we - I remember we sat down with the bookkeeper, and he was blown away. He's like, this thing is really efficient, making a lot of money. And it continued to get busier and busier and busier. And then everybody started asking me when I was going to open up the next Chipotle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Were you still in your mind planning on opening a fine dining restaurant?

ELLS: Oh, that was what I was thinking about...

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: ...For sure. And I had no intention of opening another Chipotle. And so I was like, oh, OK. Maybe I'll open one more. So I called my dad and I said, you know, everybody's pressuring me. So I said, Dad, I think I'm going to do it. He's like, all right. So I think maybe he put in a little bit more money. But it was mostly cash flow that opened the second restaurant. And that opened about a year and a half later. And it opened up much busier than the first one. It was extraordinary. And so I said, all right. I'll open up one more.

RAZ: Wow - all in Denver?

ELLS: All in Denver.

RAZ: Three - because people are probably saying, like, wait, three in Denver?

ELLS: Actually, that was one of my dad's questions. He's like, Steve, do you think Denver can have two of these? I'm like, I think so, Dad. Now it's one per thousand or something in Denver.

RAZ: At what point does - I mean, does somebody say or do you say or do you think maybe this is it, maybe this is the thing that's going to - that we should be pursuing? Maybe this is bigger than just Denver.

ELLS: Well, so that happened after I had a dozen restaurants or so.

RAZ: Wow.

ELLS: Maybe less - maybe eight restaurants - honestly, I forget. But I thought I would go to Kansas City. It seemed like a neat food town. People were really into barbecue. It's a really strong barbecue culture there. I liked that. And I thought there could be a burrito culture, too.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And so you know, it didn't open up super strong. But it did pretty well.

RAZ: And did you - was that the idea? Were you just going to keep expanding, like, one store after another?

ELLS: Well, the idea of expansion wasn't about building an empire. It wasn't a number I was going after. I never thought, oh my gosh. If I could only have, you know, 10 restaurants or 20 or 50 or 100 or 1,000. It was never like that.

RAZ: But I mean, you were still expanding. So how are you funding that expansion?

ELLS: As you know my dad funded the first restaurant.

RAZ: Right.

ELLS: And then I started signing up leases for restaurant four, five, six, seven. And then I went to my dad and I said, you know I'm signing up leases. I think I'm going to need a cash infusion. Would you like to invest? And luckily he said, yes. We opened those restaurants. And they were successful. And I said, well, I'm going to continue to open up some more. Would you like to invest again? And he said, you know, why don't you go raise the money yourself? And I said, well, how do you do that? He said, well, you need to write a business plan. And you have to, you know, go pitch it to people who are qualified to invest...

RAZ: Wait, just to be clear - you'd already had a bunch of stores at this point. You did not have a business plan?

ELLS: No, no, no. There was no business plan...

RAZ: You were just making burritos.

ELLS: I was just making this up...

RAZ: Right.

ELLS: ...As I went along.

RAZ: OK. Right.

ELLS: And I remember I hired a college buddy who went off to get his MBA. So I hired him and said, well, we have to put this business plan together. And so as we put the business plan together, what emerged was this economic model - the investment, the sales, the resulting margin.

RAZ: Did you understand any of that stuff, by the way?

ELLS: Well, I didn't as we were contemplating the business plan. But after having to pitch it, you know, it was my MBA, really. That was my quick and dirty business school. And so during the time where I was pitching it, I met one of our early investors who turned out to be a board member. And he was really instrumental in helping me understand how special the economic model was at Chipotle.

RAZ: What was it about the economic model that was so special?

ELLS: Well, it was very, very efficient. First of all, the investment cost was very low. And, you know, typical fast food, at the time, had to have room for a drive through. They were usually freestanding. And so all of that required a sizable investment. With Chipotle, we were going into strip malls often in the inexpensive center units, not the more desirable end caps. This was early on. So the investment was very, very modest. And our production system or our service format really was an assembly line.

And as volumes increased as we served more customers, you would get, you know, a higher and higher margin, a higher contribution margin. And so the resulting returns on investment were extraordinary. And again, nothing like this in the restaurant industry at the time.

RAZ: Did you go to, like, private equity companies or venture capital?

ELLS: I did. So I started to go to institutions. And then one of my initial investors, Al Baldocchi, suggested that I send a plan to McDonald's. And he had met someone in McDonald's that was thinking about new restaurant ideas.

RAZ: Right.

ELLS: And so I thought, well, that's a really bad idea, Al.

RAZ: (Laughter)

ELLS: You know, Chipotle and McDonald's are so completely different. He said, well, just send them a plan. See what happens. And so I did. And within a few weeks, I got a call and a visit. And a couple of weeks later, I got another call. And they said, can we bring some more people? And that kept going on for about a year. It culminated in a visit from the CEO and their CFO.

RAZ: What did they eventually do? They made an offer to invest in Chipotle? Or they wanted to buy it outright?

ELLS: Initially, I think they wanted to buy it outright.

RAZ: Right.

ELLS: And I wasn't willing to sell. And so they made a very, very small investment, enough to open a few restaurants. And then they - you know, then annually, they would put in more money. Over a seven-year period, I think they put in $360 million or so.

RAZ: Wow.

ELLS: But the majority of that was in the last couple of years.

RAZ: But that McDonald's investment, which may have been tiny for them, because it's a multi-billion dollar company - that cash infusion for you guys was tens of millions of dollars. That was transformational.

ELLS: Completely. There was there was no - I mean, I was very lucky in that I don't think there's anyone else who would have been able to invest that way and bet on the come. And what I mean by that is, you know, we opened some markets. California's a great example where sales were really soft, and the restaurants weren't making money. But McDonald's was very patient. And they believed that sales would come in some of the markets that were softer. And indeed they did.

RAZ: So they basically put in some money. And that means McDonald's had a chunk - owned a chunk of the company at that point, right?

ELLS: They owned the majority of the company toward the end of the seven-year period. But as we developed the relationship over the years, we realized that, you know, our way of doing things was more appropriate than what their system had to offer.

RAZ: Yeah, because you guys did things like source your meat from a specific ranch - farm. Like, you found this ranch that had free-range pigs, and you went with them, right?

ELLS: Right. I was reading a quarterly magazine called The Art of Eating. And this particular issue that I was reading was about Niman Ranch and the pork farms in Thornton, Iowa. And at the time I was reading this, I was thinking about changing the recipe for our carnitas. And so as I was reading this article, I was learning about, you know, the way they raised their pigs, which I guess is - was much different than the typical way that pigs are raised in the United States. The vast majority of pork is raised in confinement. So if you contrast that with what I saw at Niman Ranch, I mean, it's just - it's such a stark contrast. So after sampling their pork, I decided that I wanted to switch all of my supply to Niman Ranch. Took about a year to get there, but, eventually, we did.

RAZ: Was McDonald's ever saying to you, hey, look. You know, it doesn't make sense that you're buying, you know, these expensive products. I mean, look at our supply chain. Look at how efficient it is. You know, you can save a lot of money. You can increase the profit margins. Or did they just keep out that?

ELLS: You know, they would ask questions not dissimilar from the questions you asked. But they would see the results. So, you know, I remember when Niman Ranch pork on the menu, I had to increase the price of the carnitas burrito. And I think it increased by about a dollar or something. And so in the world of fast food, that was just not understood. I mean, you've got to remember this is the time when fast food had the .59, .79, .99 price point. I think that was at Taco Bell and the dollar value menu and things like this. Here I am raising the price of the carnitas burrito by a dollar. And after we did that, we started selling more carnitas burritos.

RAZ: I mean, obviously, your business approach and theirs were totally different. And so I would imagine that you were - you weren't going to last in a partnership forever, right?

ELLS: Right. Well, so McDonald's has a very strong franchise system.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And their franchisees obviously wanted a part of Chipotle. And, you know, certainly they would have been capable of operating Chipotle. There are a lot of good operators in the McDonald's system, but the economic model was so good that we wanted to own it.

RAZ: You did not want to franchise the business.

ELLS: We didn't. No, and that was perhaps the biggest point of contention.

RAZ: Right.

ELLS: And McDonald's, you know, sort of had a duty to their franchisees to offer Chipotle as a growth vehicle. It just didn't - it wasn't going to be a fit, and we felt like we were ready to go our own way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: The expansion of Chipotle was unbelievable. I mean, after that McDonald's investment, it was like - it was like a rocket, you know. I mean, everybody and their brother and sisters wanted to create the next Chipotle. How did that affect your personal life? I mean, were you just like on top of the world, like so excited about this, or were you stressed out about this? Because you went from 13 stores to 500 stores very quickly and then from 500 stores to, you know, thousands now. But did you enjoy that? Was it exciting, or were you overwhelmed ever?

ELLS: So if you think about my original plan for Chipotle...

RAZ: Yes.

ELLS: ...I failed...

RAZ: (Laughter) OK.

ELLS: ...Because the intention was to start one little Chipotle and then to be able to step away from it and use the funds from that restaurant to open and operate my full-scale restaurant. So I failed because I never stepped away from Chipotle. In fact, I don't think I took a day off in the first year. The only time I left was when I had to run out, you know, to take the money to the bank or go to a supplier or something like this. Certainly, there was stress to it, but it was really exciting.

On the other hand, though, as it got bigger and the challenges got much larger, the challenges of operating a large business, I just always wondered if I was qualified. So it was - you know, I was like I never went to business school. I didn't think of myself as a CEO. You know, how on Earth am I going to learn to do this? So there was a lot of doubt, self-doubt, along the way.

RAZ: I imagine there was, and that - to me, that seems like a very healthy thing because it would be - I would not - I would not feel confident if you didn't have self-doubt. I mean, that's a thing. Like, you're a chef, and you are all of a sudden at the helm of this massive, growing empire with tons of employees just scaling quickly.

ELLS: Right.

RAZ: How did you even know how to deal with personnel and management and all this stuff?

ELLS: Well, you learn along the way, and there have been so many transformations along the way. And so over the last 24 years, it's about, you know, reinventing yourself, you know, learning new things. But I got good at finding really good people. I think that's probably what I'm best at.

RAZ: So you go public. Your share price just skyrockets, and this is, I guess, in 2006. And then you have a pretty big crisis in 2015. What was that like for you to deal with? This is - we can talk about the details, but, first of all, what was that like?

ELLS: Sure. Well, that, you know, that anyone would get sick from the food that you serve them is really a tough thing. And so immediately, you know, we try to figure out what could be causing this. And it was a very difficult thing to figure out, and there were a lot of experts who we brought on immediately and, you know, the CDC and lots of investigations.

RAZ: This started in, I guess, the Pacific Northwest.

ELLS: Yeah.

RAZ: There are some people who got sick from - after eating it. And...

ELLS: So, you know, over a one-month period, from basically mid-October to mid-November, 52 people got sick with E. coli.

RAZ: Were you freaking out?

ELLS: Well, I mean, freak - I don't know freaking out is the right way to describe it. You know, we were really - well, I mean, it was just - it was all encompassing. I mean, it was like - it was really intense. You know, you wouldn't wish this on anybody. But if you back up and think about it, you know, nobody was bringing in as much fresh food, as much fresh produce and meat as Chipotle. So what we realized is that we needed to develop protocols to prevent any kind of pathogen from coming into the system.

RAZ: Which is impossible to do 100 percent of time, right?

ELLS: You know, you can never say 100 percent.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: But you can get very close to zero. So, you know, I'll give you an example. Think about an avocado. There are potentially pathogens on an avocado, but you wash the avocado, right? The avocado was washed after it's harvested. But what if that avocado could be infected somehow falls on the ground and hits a little rock or something and that - and just that little spot where the pathogen is pushed under the skin?

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And now you wash it, but you don't wash that little spot. And what if, as you put your knife into the avocado to cut it...

RAZ: It hits that spot.

ELLS: ...It hits that exact spot? But what are the chances of that, 1 in a million, 1 in 10 million? How many...

RAZ: I'm thinking about all avocados I cut at home, and I don't wash them.

ELLS: Well, that's right, but you cut dozens. We cut millions and millions, and I'm not saying that the avocado was responsible for this particular incident, but we've looked at every single item we bring in, and we've ensured that there are a number of interventions along the way. And so what we do with this avocado now is after we wash it, we plunge it into boiling water for five seconds. This is called blanching.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And it's not long enough to cook avocado but just long enough to bring the temperature of the skin and the area under the skin just high enough so that it would kill any pathogen that might be there. And we do this with lemons and limes and bell peppers and jalapeno peppers. It's a process that is very, very thorough, and the chance that a pathogen can survive through that is certainly near zero.

RAZ: Steve, you have this incredible run from the - literally from the first store you open that was profitable, and then you hit this crisis point in 2015. And I can't imagine you ever dealt with anything even remotely close to that. So were you mentally prepared for it?

ELLS: Well, (laughter) you know, I'm here now, so I got through it.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: But we weren't - we weren't prepared as an organization for it obviously.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And since that incident - we're two years away from it now - we are a different company. We have a top-notch board of directors that are independent and very critical in a good way, in a challenging way. And we are prepared now for a lot of success ahead of us.

RAZ: I mean, when you think about the valuation of the company, this number, I mean, I guess - and it's taken a little bit of a beating because of the crisis you faced, but, I mean, at its highest, it was - what? - like, near $20 billion.

ELLS: Yeah, $21 billion I think was the highest.

RAZ: Twenty-one billion dollars. I mean, for a burrito restaurant started in Denver in 1993, that's pretty insane. You know - I mean, when you think about that - I don't know - do you sit back and say, you know, wow, look at - how awesome is that, or do you - you don't even think about that?

ELLS: It doesn't really work that way. It's not big stairstep sort of increases. It's relatively linear, you know, and sort of, you know, just it getting bigger, taking on more responsibility, the valuation, all those sort of things. It just - it's been relatively linear.

RAZ: And do you think - and so is it, that amount of money, just abstract?

ELLS: I don't understand the question.

RAZ: I mean, do - is it mean anything? I mean - because I would think - I would be incredibly proud of that, you know, that you grow this thing to such a huge place in that period of time.

ELLS: So, again, I've always - so when I - before I started the first restaurant, I used to tell people that I wanted to show that just because food is sort of fast doesn't mean it has to be a typical fast-food experience. And that evolved to saying that I want to change the way Americans think about and eat fast food. And I remember when I started saying that - we weren't very big - that sounded like a big, audacious goal. But the basic idea behind our purpose is that, you know, food that's raised right should be people's everyday food. And as I see others who have opened restaurants that are based on the Chipotle model, you know, I'm very excited about that. That's what - that's what drives us.

RAZ: How much of your success do you think is because of luck, and how much because of your hard work and skill?

ELLS: So, you know, my success in the early days was - I think I caused a lot of that success, but then you have to layer on being in the right place at the right time. I was lucky to have a father who could invest $85,000 in my first restaurant because I couldn't have raised that money myself, that McDonald's allowed me to basically run the company and tap into their resources. You know, it's a combination, but also a lot of it is - you know, if I go back to this concept that I learned in cooking school, it's this French term called mise en place.

RAZ: Everything in its right place, yeah.

ELLS: Yeah. Everything in its place, and it's basically - you know, you could think about it - you know, before service, you have your mise en place. And that means that once service starts, everything you need for a successful service that night is laid out just so.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELLS: And so I think about - I think about, you know, my overall mise en place, that I've set myself up for success. And that seems to make sense for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle. By the way, despite the fact that Steve could finally fulfill his dream and open up that high-end restaurant, he says that moment has kind of passed. Besides, there's a lot of money still to be made in burritos. Chipotle stores sell close to 200,000 of them every single hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And please do stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you are building. But first, a quick thanks to one of our sponsors, Delta Airlines. Now you can enjoy free mobile messaging while flying on Delta. You can use iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger simply by logging into the in-flight Wi-Fi.

Hey, thanks for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And our story today comes to us from Alexander Harik. He grew up in New York City. And when he and his sisters would sit down for meals, there was always one thing, one condiment on the table that they pretty much slathered on everything they ate.

ALEXANDER HARIK: We would put it on baked potatoes all the time. We would have it in yogurts. We'd have it on chicken, on bagels and cream cheese, on eggs, on burgers.

RAZ: And which magical condiment could actually taste good on all of these different things? Yeah, there's Sriracha. But besides Sriracha?

HARIK: It's za'atar.

RAZ: Za'atar is this tangy, earthy, Middle Eastern spice made with different types of thyme, maybe some oregano.

HARIK: And then other spices like cumin, sage, some sesame seeds - even chickpeas. I mean, it is a cultural food staple. You know, ask a Middle Eastern person, do you know za'atar is? It's like asking an American, do you know what apple pie is?

RAZ: Anyway, a few years ago, Alexander, who happens to be of Lebanese descent, started to notice za'atar was showing up in all of these unexpected places like in corner hipster restaurants, food blogs...

GUY RAZ AND ALEXANDER HARIK: Instagram. Social media.

HARIK: And I was like, no way. Is za'atar becoming a thing?

RAZ: Yes. In some parts of the country, za'atar was becoming a thing. But Alexander wondered why nobody made it the way his mom did, mixing the spices with olive oil into a spread.

HARIK: It brings out the flavor of the herbs, you know, the essence of the herbs out more. And, you know, condiments are cool. Everybody loves condiments, right?

RAZ: So Alexander was thinking about all of this last year. And at the same time, he was working at a research firm on Wall Street. It was a job he wasn't really crazy about. And so one night, he was having dinner at his parents' place. Za'atar was, of course, on the table.

HARIK: And I'm looking down. My head's between my arms. I'm telling them what's going on. And boom, it just hit me. I'm staring at it. And I said, Mom, Dad, I got it.

RAZ: It's his light-bulb moment. Alexander says we have got to make za'atar the way you make it, Mom. And we should sell it, like, as a spread.

HARIK: We've been eating these foods our whole life. We always joke about it. We should have started hummus, or we should've started Greek yogurt. So let's do it for za'atar. We can do this.

RAZ: So a few months later, Alexander walked away from his job. He moved back in with his parents. He found an industrial kitchen. He Googled where to find the spices, the olive oil, the little glass jars. He made his first batch of spreadable za'atar. And he started going door to door to sell it to specialty stores in New York.

HARIK: I had these little gift bags that had a jar of Zesty Z, pita chips, recipe cards and our sales sheet. And I walk in. And I'd say, hey, I think I've got a great product your customers would like. And I'll follow up in a week with you.

RAZ: And when he did follow up in a week, a lot of people said no.

HARIK: No, we don't like this. We don't think this will sell. We don't like the taste, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So dealing with that - you know, people who say that it's business. It's not personal. Whoever came up with that quote or says that never started a business because I would disagree with that for sure.

RAZ: But a few months after he got all those nos...

HARIK: I get an email saying, thank you so much for the thoughtful package. We absolutely love this. We'll take two cases. And when I got that email, I started to cry.

RAZ: And from there, Alexander started to get a bit more traction. He's now selling his za'atar spread on Amazon and in Whole Foods stores in New York City. And he hopes to expand even more.

HARIK: I want to share what I had growing up with everybody else. And that's what I want to do with my life.

RAZ: Over the past year, Alexander says he's made a healthy six figures, enough to pay himself a small salary and move out of his parents' place. Alexander's company is called Zesty Z, the Za'atar Company. He co-founded it with his mom, by the way. And to learn more about it, head to our Facebook page. And, of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. We love hearing what you are up to. And thanks for listening to our show this week. If you want to find out more or hear previous episodes, you can go to howibuiltthis.npr.org. Please also download our podcast at Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts. You can also write us. It's hibt@npr.org. Our Twitter handle is @HowIBuiltThis.

Our show was produced this week by Ramtin Arablouei, who also composed the music. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Claire Breen and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Dayana Mustak. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.