Haute Chipotle

It came toward the end of about an hour of conversation, but it was possibly the best quote I've ever gotten in an interview. We had exhausted a wide range of subjects, and to wrap things up, I said, "So, ultimately, what do you hope to accomplish?"

After a couple of platitudes about serving great food at low prices, Jim Adams, executive marketing director of Chipotle Mexican Grill, replied: "You know, there's no excuse to serve crap. There just isn't any. And too many places serve crap."

I might have thought that I had caught Jim Adams in an Obama moment, saying something he believed to be true, but maybe not choosing the best adjectives. However, I quickly concluded that this wasn't likely because Jim had begun his career as a journalist and then spent many years as a public relations man.

Jim knew exactly what he was saying, and he meant every word of it. Maybe he was even hoping we'd highlight his words on our cover (which we did). Anyone who has ever eaten at a Chipotle knows exactly what he was talking about.

One of the first things you notice about a Chipotle quick-serve restaurant is that it smells really good inside. That’s because they’re actually cooking there. You can see right into the kitchen where they’re mashing the guacamole, grilling the chicken and chopping the cilantro.

You hear music—different, interesting, earthy music. It’s loud enough to notice, but not so loud that it gets in the way. Artsy black-and-white photos and a big, flat, wood sculpture are spotlighted against brightly painted walls, accented with rustic timbers and rough-hewn metal.

A young man with a thick Spanish accent cheerfully helps diners make their choices: "What can I get for you?" A customer responds, and he repeats the order: "Chicken Burrito! Black Beans?" There’s a definite energy and rhythm to it: "Next Please! What can I get for you?"

If it’s your first time at Chipotle, you might find yourself slightly off balance. Sure, you’ve heard all the hype. But you also knew Chipotle was a fast-food place and weren’t quite expecting this. It smells good … it sounds good … it looks good … it feels good.

This is the Chipotle experience: A fast-food restaurant crossed with fine dining. Average ticket: about eight bucks. It is the brainchild of Steve Ells, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who opened the first Chipotle as a way to fund a "real" restaurant.

Fifteen years later, Chipotle is arguably America’s most successful restaurant. Its shares doubled in 2007, and while the fast-food category limps along with same-store-sales in single digits, Chipotle’s same-store growth-rate has been in double digits for 10 years running.

Chipotle got there by challenging just about every rule that has governed fast-food success, wrapped in an ethos it telegraphs as "food with integrity." Apparently, integrity is the best policy.

Nobody enjoys talking about what "food with integrity" means more than Jim Adams who joined Chipotle eight years ago as its public relations director and today presents his title as executive director of marketing and bon vivant.

You can read the entire interview with Chipotle's Jim Adams here.

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