The Next Bump After Fresh and Fast

With its all-natural meats and gourmet, have-it-your-way burritos, Chipotle Mexican Grill sets out to win Jersey tastebuds and minds.

Steve Ells, a Culinary Institute of America grad who cooked at Jeremiah Tower’s celebrated Stars restaurant in San Francisco, returned home to Denver in 1993 thinking there must be a way to turn out fresh, great-tasting food quickly at reasonable prices. In tacos and burritos he found the right “form factor,” as techno geeks might say.

The combination of Ells’s sophisticatedly seasoned recipes, his emphasis on hormone- and antibiotic-free meat, and the company’s award-winning industrial-chic architecture now drives the more than 530 Chipotle Mexican Grills around the country.

Things haven’t changed much since the first Chipotle opened in Denver in 1993. You still inch your way down the service line, choosing from four kinds of meat, two kinds of beans, four kinds of salsa, cheese, sour cream, sautéed peppers and onions, and lime-cilantro rice. As it says on the bottom of every menu, “2 things, thousands of ways.”

Steak and chicken are marinated in chipotle adobo and other spices. Niman Ranch pork is braised with thyme, bay leaves, juniper berries, and black pepper, then chopped, yielding carnitas. Barbacoa is beef braised with chipotle adobo, cumin, cloves, garlic, and oregano. Guacamole, salsa, and chips are made fresh daily in each restaurant.

About the only new wrinkle was introduced in 2003: a $6.75 salad, in which meat and fixings are served in a bowl over romaine lettuce, with chipotle-honey vinaigrette and no tortilla. The one-size, 20-ounce tacos and burritos range from $5.60 for meatless to $6.45 for steak.

So far, Ells has reached his goal of serving all naturally raised meat in New York and New Jersey, but nationally only with pork, since there isn’t yet enough naturally raised chicken and beef to meet the company’s needs. Last fall, a year after going public, Chipotle divested itself from its early investor, McDonald’s. Even when McDonald’s was backing it, Chipotle owned and operated all its restaurants.

Chipotle’s strategy is to build brand awareness in cities before spreading to the suburbs. In cities or ‘burbs, a site needs strong lunch sales, driven by shopping and business, with enough residential surround to generate a dinner trade.

Our state’s population density and upscale demographics convinced Chipotle execs to open here ahead of Westchester, Connecticut, and Long Island. Once the chain reached fifteen restaurants in New York City, it began opening here—Secaucus last August, Bridgewater in December. Clifton opens this month, North Brunswick is projected for October, and Wayne for 2008.

The Plaza at Harmon Meadows, Secaucus (201-223-0562); the Village at Bridgewater Commons, 640 Commons Way, Bridgewater (908-231-0398); Wayne Town Center, 380 Route 3 West, Clifton (973-916-0040).

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