When Steve Ells started the first Chipotle restaurant in 1993 in Denver, at the former site of a Dolly Madison ice cream parlor, the 28-year-old Colorado native couldn’t imagine that his take on a Mission-style burrito joint would one day upend the fast-food world. Ells wasn’t a businessman with a particular acumen for scaling operations; he was a chef who put his heart into every onion he sliced, every pork shoulder he braised, and every meal he served. In the early days, he didn’t even think to write down Chipotle’s recipes on paper: He’d verbally convey them to all new hires, working shoulder to shoulder with them over pots and pans and cutting boards as they learned what made this restaurant unique compared with conventional, automated chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell.
Back then, the concept of “fast casual” didn’t even exist. But as Chipotle blossomed over the past two decades, growing from a single storefront to more than 2,000 locations, so has its premium model of serving fresh, responsibly sourced ingredients in a refined dining environment. Since a series of food-safety incidents diminished Chipotle’s customer base and its luster in the last 12 months—the subject of our special investigation on the company—it’s worth taking stock of how radically the industry has transformed since Ells arrived on the scene. Consumers will no longer settle for any dated roadside eatery or cheap-looking chain; their tastebuds now elevated and their expectations higher, they’re increasingly spending their dollars with brands that claim devotion to a higher calling—what Ells refers to as Food With Integrity. “Steve is a force: He invented the whole fast-casual thing,” says restaurant consultant Kenny Lao. “Every [new client of mine] always says they want to be the Chipotle of X.”
Walk around the corner from Chipotle’s downtown Denver headquarters, and you can witness this revolution firsthand. On 16th Street, a popular pedestrian mall in the Mile High City, you’ll find a mecca of refreshing fast-casual upstarts, all just a Yelp search away from Chipotle’s own area location. There’s Noodles & Company and Tokyo Joe’s; Smashburger and Larkburger; Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill; Green Fine Salad Co. and Mad Greens; Juice Kitchen and Modern Market, among many others. Chain restaurants are quintessentially American, and entrepreneurs have been inspired by the likes of Ells. They’re also in the fashion business, and for a long time, Chipotle set the trend for others to put their own twist on.
In this slideshow, we’ve complied a list of some of the more promising fast-casual brands that have popped up around the world. This is neither a comprehensive list, nor is it an endorsement or ranking of chains that we believe will grow to be as successful and culturally impactful as Chipotle. But they represent the disruption Ells has brought to our food system—not to mention the wildly improved and expanded offerings we now all have for lunch, typical fast-food chains be damned.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” Ells tells me when I ask what this increased competition means for Chipotle. “Certainly we’re not going to feed everyone, every single meal. Other people are going to have to do that too. But wouldn’t it be great if the public had more access to really good quality raw ingredients?”