As a kid Steve Ells would watch Julia Child and learn cooking tips from his mom. As a high school student, Steve started to host dinner parties for his friends but by college he still hadn’t realized that cooking was his passion. He instead enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder to study Art History.
Four years later, it was time to choose a career path. At a dinner party, a friend suggested to Ells what was obvious to everyone else – that he was a great cook who, with a little training, could become a great chef, and that cooking school would be a good fit for him. Steve reportedly said “That’d be fun,” and, after his dad agreed to pay for only the best cooking school in the country, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. (For more, see: 10 Rewarding Career Choices.)
After completing his culinary courses, Ells moved to San Francisco to work as a sous-chef at Stars, a restaurant ran by Jeremiah Tower. The story goes that Steve got the idea for Chipotle from a local taquiera near his house. He watched how fast the customers came in and, despite not really understanding the economics behind what he was doing, calculated how much money the restaurant was making earning per customer.
A Little Burrito Shop In Denver
Armed with this knowledge and an $85,000 loan/investment from his dad, Steve moved back to Colorado in 1992 and set about finding the cheapest building he could find to open his burrito shop. The original plan wasn’t to run a burrito shop for the rest of his life. In fact, in the beginning it seemed like Steve wanted as little to do with Chipotle as possible.
The first restaurant, opened in the summer of 1993, was sparse in decor (everything having been bought from a local hardware store) and there was no signage or explanation of what the restaurant served. Steve cut costs wherever possible and ensured that the business was so simple that he could simply hire someone to run it – he was looking at his burrito shop as a business that could generate large returns quickly.
If Chipotle at this point sounds more like a get-rich-quick scheme than a legitimate business idea, that’s because it kind of was. Steve was only in the burrito business to earn the capital needed to start a fine dining restaurant where he could use the skills he developed at the Culinary Institute of America to create delicious meals.
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