It’s the restaurant that knows exactly what you want: An entire meal wrapped up in a giant tortilla. So it should come as no surprise that Chipotle is one of the fastest-growing chains in the U.S., with more than 1,800 locations and 200 more going up this year alone. You probably ate lunch there today, in fact. But while its huge burritos, quirky music and a focus on fresh, sustainable ingredients are well known, peel back the foil and you’ll discover there’s a lot you didn’t know about this fast-casual empire.
1. Its CEO studied art history and attended the Culinary Institute of America.
Founder Steve Ells had no intention of running a multibillion-dollar restaurant chain. He started Chipotle in 1993 as a step toward one day opening a fine-dining establishment. Once he was selling more than 1,000 burritos a day (his initial goal was just over 100), though, he realized he was on to something.
2. Inspiration came by way of San Francisco.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1990, Ells moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a sous chef at the now legendary Stars, run by former Chez Panisse chef Jeremiah Tower. There, the emphasis was on fresh ingredients, and the restaurant kept its kitchen clean and shining, and in full view of patrons. Combine this aesthetic with the foil-wrapped, Mission-style burritos that were becoming popular at the time, and voila — Chipotle’s recipe for success.
3. The first restaurant was barely functional.
Ells opened the first Chipotle in a business-poor neighborhood of Denver, in a former Dolly Madison ice cream parlor. Businesses along the block shared water access, which meant Chipotle’s soda machine didn’t work if someone was getting a shampoo at the salon next door. Add to that petty thievery, a puzzling menu, and a hideous green-and-white sign, and it’s a wonder the restaurant stayed afloat.
4. McDonald’s helped it grow.
No, the Golden Arches does not own Chipotle, contrary to popular belief—though it owned a controlling stake in the company from 1998 to 2006. During that time, the Mexican fast-casual concept went from 13 locations to more than 500. McDonald’s divested once Chipotle went public, earning a tidy sum that could have been much, much more, considering Chipotle’s earnings have tripled since then.
5. The whole local, sustainable focus hasn't always been a thing.
It wasn’t until Ells read about Niman Ranch and its all-natural, humanely raised meat that he became interested. One plate of Niman pork tacos later, the deal was sealed. Now the chain is all-in: It’s the largest buyer of all-natural meat in the U.S., has lobbied for legislation to increase the supply of hormone- and antibiotic-free meat, and recently phased out genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from its supply chain.
6. There is no secret menu—but you can get a gut-busting "quesarito" if you ask.
Fans and news outlets alike have spent a considerable amount of energy trying to figure out if the company has a secret menu. Chipotle’s spokesman, meanwhile, is adamant that there is no secret menu, but that workers are free to build customizable orders. Whatever the case, the 1,500-calorie quesarito—it’s exactly what it sounds like—has become a favorite.
7. It has a DJ on the payroll to curate its in-store music.
You won’t hear any Billboard chart toppers while chowing down on your steak burrito. That’s thanks to Chris Golub, a Brooklyn DJ and owner of Studio Orca, which creates customized playlists (or “musical identities,” to use his lingo) for Chipotle and other brands. He became friends with Ells in 1998 after the two met at a Denver food and wine festival. In 2010, the CEO came to him and said, essentially, “dude, our music sucks.”
8. Its supply trucks have a pretty funny sign on the back.
To stymie roving gangs of burrito-loving bandits, presumably.
9. News Flash: Just because it's all-natural doesn't mean it's healthy.
Just because the sour cream is free of growth hormones doesn’t mean it's any less fattening. In a recent study, participants underestimated the number of calories in their Chipotle burrito by an average of 37%. A fully loaded burrito, some detractors say, is worse for you than a Big Mac. The company, meanwhile, points to the customizability of its meals. You don’t HAVE to pile on the guac, sour cream and cheese, after all.
10. Celebrities and athletes get custom-made cards giving them free burritos for a year.
Russell Wilson, Bryce Harper and Steven Tyler are just a few of the big names who receive customized cards entitling them to free burritos for a year. Before you get (understandably) angry at the thought of millionaires getting free burritos, consider this: It’s a marketing move. Many of the celebs Tweet their gratitude to thousands of followers, which amounts to low-cost advertising for Chipotle.
11. And speaking of celebrities: Jason Mraz is on their list of ingredients suppliers.
The Grammy-winning singer/songwriter keeps a five-and-a-half acre avocado farm that supplies around 35,000 pounds each year to Chipotle. He says he plans to retire at 40 so he can farm, surf and do charity work. Sounds like a pretty sweet gig.
12. There are free burrito coins floating around out there.
Starting in 1999, Chipotle started giving out free burrito coins to loyal customers. Though no longer minted, the coins are still out there, most likely in the hands of workers and their friends. You can also find some on eBay, though they’re going for more than the actual cost of a burrito.
13. They’re looking beyond burritos for growth.
In 2011, Chipotle opened ShopHouse, a fast-casual restaurant that applies the same build-your-own format to Southeast Asian cuisine. The chain now operates a dozen locations on both coasts, and seems bent on serious growth. Chipotle also runs a Pizzeria Locale in Denver, which could conquer the pizza industry—if the LeBron James-backed Blaze Pizza doesn’t beat it to the punch.
14. Yale is really interested in its cups and paper bags.
That cup with all the writing on it that you just threw away—yeah, it’s kind of a big deal. The Yale Rare Book Library recently added Chipotle bags and cups that are part of the company’s “Cultivating Thoughts” series to its collection. The brainchild of author Jonathan Safran Foer, the paper items feature short stories, essays and poems by the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides, Barbara Kingsolver and Toni Morrison.