Chipotle leaves a wound in Denver’s heart as it moves to California though its burritos aren’t going anywhere

Like a roadside attraction, the original Chipotle lured Michele Wagner on Thursday. Outside the restaurant chain’s birthplace, at 1644 E. Evans Ave., she posed her out-of-town family members for a photo.

“It’s like an icon,” Wagner said. “We heard about the headquarters moving yesterday, and it’s just a very sad day.”

Colorado is in a state of shock after learning that Denver’s quirky fast-casual chain — whose new CEO is from Taco Bell — is moving its headquarters to Newport Beach, Calif., an upscale community known for yachts, Kobe Bryant and a TV show called “The O.C.”

Chipotle Mexican Grill will join a county also stuffed with fast-food corporate offices, including neighbors Taco Bell and Del Taco. The sudden news created a wave of nostalgia for many in Denver on Thursday.

“Chipotle is a part of our life,” said Wagner, a Centennial resident who has been bringing her family to the broker of burritos since its opening in 1993. “We have a connection with it in our family.”

Founder Steve Ells, a University of Colorado graduate, carved a niche in the fast-food market after Chipotle launched. Freshly made burritos with “responsibly raised” — yes, it’s a trademark — meats and organic tofu were a welcome change to burgers and french fries for many Americans. Fast-casual became the identifier of places serving higher-quality ingredients and a self-service format. And Chipotle’s sales — and stock price — took off.

DENVER, CO - May 24: The ...
Hyoung Chang, The Denver PostThe Original Chipotle Location at 1644 E. Evans Ave., Denver, Colorado. After nearly 25 years in Denver, Chipotle Mexican Grill moving its headquarters to Southern California, where its new CEO Brian Niccol lives. May 24, 2018.

Denver comedian Adam Cayton-Holland missed Chipotle so much when he went out of state to school, his mother would pack a cooler full of the massive foil-wrapped burritos and deliver them to him when she visited.

“She would bring them in a cooler like a baboon heart on the airplane,” Cayton-Holland said. “Now that Chipotle is fleeing Denver, I was already an Illegal Pete’s fan, but I’m even more of one now. But I’ll always have a love of Chipotle.”

The company did things differently. People lined up for the food. Campaigns included authors writing stories on cups and paper bags. It created short films to woo diners. Burrito prices were in the $6-and-up range. Unlike Taco Bell, it offered no dollar menu.

By the time it went public in early 2006, Chipotle had grown to 480 stores. Shares closed at $22 on the first day and kept climbing, reaching an all-time high of nearly $750 in 2015. But then the company suffered a spate of food-poisoning incidences nationwide. While Chipotle cleaned up stores and retrained employees, the damage to its reputation and its “Food with Integrity” motto was major. Sales dropped and its stock price never recovered.

Its early success, however, forced fast-food rivals to rethink their business. According to Taco Bell’s FAQ page, the company has reduced sodium on its menu items by 15 percent, switched to cage-free eggs, and denounced artificial flavors and colors.

Taco Bell did not respond to a request for comment.

Chipotle vs. Taco Bell

Chipotle’s new CEO hails from Taco Bell and now the Denver fast-casual icon is moving its headquarters to Taco Bell country in Orange County, Calif. Scroll to see how the two chains compare:

Images provided by Chipotle and Taco Bell

The impact Chipotle had on the fast-food industry inspired many people, including Anthony Pigliacampo, co-founder of Denver-based Modern Market.

“To be honest, when we started Modern Market, one of the reasons we chose Denver was that Chipotle was here. We thought it was the Silicon Valley of restaurants, with Chipotle obviously being the marquee,” said Pigliacampo. “Chipotle was a huge inspiration. To me, they were the ones, more than anyone else, who proved that you could scale with extremely high-quality ingredients.”

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Modern Market, whose motto is “Farm Fresh Eateries,” went from one store to 30 in less than eight years. In its 25 years, Chipotle went from one to 2,450 stores. Pigliacampo hopes Chipotle’s focus on quality won’t change under new management or the new location for the headquarters.

“I don’t think Chipotle is broken in any way,” he said. “I don’t think they need a revolutionary change or whatever mojo those activist investors are pushing.”

The stock price plunge caused activist investors to rise up and ultimately force Ells to step aside as CEO. In February, the company hired former Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol, who took over March 5. Investors seem pleased, and Chipotle’s stock price has rallied 70 percent since, closing Thursday at $433.43.

Niccol comes from a marketing background. He joined Yum Brands in 2005 and also worked at Pizza Hut. At Taco Bell, he repositioned the company from “food is fuel” to “food is an experience,” and bumped up its marketing budget from $1 million to $70 million in four years, according to a 2015 Los Angeles Times article. Taco Bell added breakfast and crazy concoctions such as the Quesarito and the XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito. The target? Millennials.

The Original Chipotle Location at 1644 West Evans Avenue, Denver, Colorado After nearly 25 years in Denver, Chipotle Mexican Grill move its headquarters to Southern California, where its new CEO Brian Niccol lives. May 24, 2018.
Hyoung Chang, The Denver PostThe Original Chipotle Location at 1644 E. Evans Ave., Denver, Colorado After nearly 25 years in Denver, Chipotle Mexican Grill moving its headquarters to Southern California, where its new CEO Brian Niccol lives. May 24, 2018.

Chipotle still has many loyal fans, including Meg McIntyre, who frequented the Chipotle on East Evans while studying at the nearby University of Denver.

“Once, I actually somehow locked my keys in my car — while it was running — because I was so focused on getting a burrito,” she said. “I live in New Hampshire now, but when I found out that the town I was moving to had a Chipotle, I was ecstatic because it felt like there would be a little piece of home nearby.”

The move to California may feel, to some Denver locals, like a stab to the city’s heart. But since the restaurants are staying, some customers probably won’t notice any difference.

“I just like the food,” said Jackson Willhoit, a freshman at South High School, while ordering a burrito at the East Evans store Thursday. “Plus, it’s close to school.”

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