Slaying the Drive-Thru Dragon: 3 Ways Chipotle Redefined the Fast Food Dynasty

You don’t have to sell out to make it big

By all accounts, Chipotle should be bankrupt. They don’t have a drive-thru window. They don’t have a value menu. There are no animated, kid-friendly characters for toys and figurines and they don’t add a hot new menu item every few months to maintain customer attention. What gives?

Chipotle doesn’t resort to cheap parlor tricks because they’re super confident in their product. Have you ever spoken to a Chipotle customer? Ask them a simple question: what’s all the hype about the cilantro-lime rice? A look of ecstasy will probably come across their face as they describe the mouth-watering goodness. Give them a moment and maybe a napkin for the drool. Premium menu items (like rice good enough to develop feelings for) helps separate Chipotle from the rest of the fast-food pack.

“Pick the right message. I thought we were going to get customers excited by telling them there were no antibiotics in our meat or no growth hormones used to raise the animals or no RGBH in our cheese or sour cream. Well, that’s not a very appetizing message. So now we have a marketing program that’s about why better ingredients make for better-tasting and more healthful food.”Steve Elle, founder of Chipotle
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Follow your own burrito bowl

Chipotle may share the block with fast food powerhouses like Burger King, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s, but it is its own category of food served fast. They spend more money on quality ingredients and refuse to franchise locations, and their efforts pay off with strong customer loyalty that has been steady and rising for the past five years.

They’re often referred to as the “Anti-McDonald’s,” which is surprising considering the company grew within the same red and gold parameters. You read that right – Mickey D’s owns Chipotle’s Mexican-inspired menu and the McRib is getting some serious competition from the McBurrito.

No matter the obstacle, stay the course

Founder Steve Ells is many things, but a drive-thru man he is not. Ells left the Culinary Institute of America  inspired but penniless. Spending heaps of dough (see what I did there?) in culinary school certainly didn’t pave the way toward easy street for the aspiring chef, but Ells knew there was something else in store for him. He felt destined to achieve his dream of owning a fancy, white tablecloth restaurant and tried to brainstorm ways to get that done.

“We want to do just a few things better than everyone else. We just do things we think are right.”
Steve Elle, founder of Chipotle

Ells knew that to achieve big dreams, you’ve got to start small and scale up. Maybe he didn’t have the capital to open up the next Ritz Carlton, but surely he had what it would take to open… something. Enter McDonald’s (and several other investors).

Ells opened the doors to the first Chipotle restaurant in Denver, 1993. Five short years later, he was up to 13 stores; another eight years later and 500 locations are crafting custom burrito bowls. Momentum like that is virtually unheard of – according to a study by Ohio State University, 60% of new restaurants fail in their first year and a whopping 80% go under in five years.

3 Key Ingredients of Chipotle’s Success

So what made Chipotle the exception and not the rule? Was it Ells’ tenacity, his passion, or just divine wisdom? If you build custom burritos, they will come! The answer is that all three were key ingredients to Chipotle’s enormous success – and pro-tip, they go great with the in-house salsa.

1. Concoct your own special business recipe.

When Ells opened the first Chipotle in Denver, he didn’t want to become a bean-and-cheese kingpin. His entire focus was on his primary goal of opening a restaurant with fancier fare, and up until a few years into the Chipotle venture, he was resilient and focused on this goal.

Like Ells, I knew I wanted to create a business that did not follow a typical startup model. I wanted to provide a service that stood out from the crowd and remained true to itself even under tremendous pressure to conform. So that’s what I did. It took time, and I am still fighting the good fight against playing by the rules, but maintaining my stance on how I want to run this business has gotten me to where I am today.

Something miraculous happens when you choose to be stubborn for the right reasons: one day, you look up from what you’re doing and realize you’re smack dab in the middle of your dream and no longer reaching out for it. Like Frank Sinatra, you made it and you did it your way. What a great feeling.

Ells eventually discovered that his goal of opening a “bigger restaurant” was more of a catalyst for achieving the impossible – making American food chain history.

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“You need to be polite, hospitable, smart, ambitious, curious, happy, respectful, honest, presentable, conscientious, motivated, infectiously enthusiastic, and have high energy. We can teach you the skills to work in our restaurants, but you really can’t teach these characteristics. By the time you’re an adult, you either have them or you don’t.”
Steve Elle, founder of Chipotle

2. The best foods are slow-cooked.

So often, people are living in constant motion toward illustrious goals. Ever heard of Sisyphus?! Look it up; that’s most of us! We are always trying to push harder and harder uphill, only to be knocked further and further back for our efforts.  Stop trying to swim against the current and start riding the waves; you’ll get to your destination just the same, but you won’t be completely exhausted for struggling so much. In business, learning to accept that it takes time is a gift you can give yourself. You can learn to stop stressing.

I never thought when I started my business plan that I would be working with entrepreneurs in the healthcare field. I wanted to provide support services to equip businesses with the tools to make it big in their own ventures. I had my heart set on pursuing the marketing niche of beard bedazzling, but you know, some things just aren’t meant to be. If I had remained intent in pursuing that highly unique passion, I would never have discovered the high need for mentorships within the healthcare field. I knew the strategies I presented were vital, so I decided to keep my options open and found the right field for my enterprise.

Think about it this way: If Ells had stuck to his “five-year plan,” he would only have around 13 Chipotle locations and maybe one fancy restaurant. Instead, he focused on building and building, accepting that he had been drawn into something bigger and more influential. He accepted that things take time, and ultimately it lead him to switch gears altogether, and for the better.

3.Trust your customers’ tastes.

Fast food chains that struggle are often the ones that cut corners on the food. Probably because cutting corners on food is a little antithetical to their business model, right? The very thing they produce to entice customers is the very thing they jeopardize by slashing the budget.

Ells knew better when it came to building Chipotle. He strived to source his ingredients from local farms (Fun Fact! One avocado farm is owned by Jason Mraz). Their salsa is made in-house and never comes out of a pre-mixed plastic bag. They don’t want their customer’s vote because they’re “convenient.” They want their customers to choose them for the taste. Convenience is and should always be the cherry on top of an otherwise delicious sundae.

I constructed my business inspired by Ells’ concept. My services are not the cheapest on the market, but I relentlessly source qualified team members so my business doesn’t offer subpar versions of the services we provide. That is why I have such a strong client base. I keep my business small and exclusive enough that I don’t feel pressured to economize. Because of Ells model, I was able to feel confident in the decision to uphold quality, and it has paid off in the long run.

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Final Thoughts

  • Stay stubborn. Determine your vision and standards and do not waver from the path. I know cutting corners will seem like an easy way to get ahead at some point or another, but Chipotle’s example has shown that staying stubborn for the right reasons can produce delicious dividends.
  • It takes time. The road to success is basically always under construction. That means there will be bumps in the road and delays along the way. Your vision may not always be warmly welcomed, but have faith that the hardships are just part of the process. Be open-minded when an opportunity to excel in your business presents itself. Just make sure you uphold quality in the process.
  • Let your customers be your guide. In business, your customers are your conscience. Their thoughts and opinions should sit like Jimney Cricket on your shoulder. Just because cutting corners will save you a few bucks does not mean it’s in the best interest of your brand, your company, or your consumers. Make sure to really listen to what your customers are saying and make adjustments that suit their needs. In the long run, your business will be more respected and your integrity will be intact.

So how did Chipotle become the new gold standard for fast, casual dining? They sought quality, stayed committed to their integrity, and respected their customers preferences. When you follow this plan for your brand, you will feel better about what you provide and how you go about your business. Chipotle is a delicious example of how staying true to your vision will reap tasty rewards.

Stay hungry.