Business Profile: Chipotle

By William Drew

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Chipotle, Fast food

Jacob Sumner is on a mission to prove that fast food isn't necessarily bad food. Photo: John Carey
Jacob Sumner is on a mission to prove that fast food isn't necessarily bad food. Photo: John Carey
Jacob Sumner, responsible for US burrito chain Chipotle's expansion into and across the UK, talks about the business and its mission to show UK consumers that fast food doesn’t necessarily have to be bad food.

Neither Jacob Sumner nor Chipotle are quite what they first seem. Heavily inked, crew cut and dressed in low-slung jeans and a cycling top, Chipotle’s man in London looks like he might play drums in a nu-metal band. In fact he is a focused businessman leading the US burrito chain’s mission in the UK, driven by an almost evangelical belief in the ethos and principles that underpin the company. 

Chipotle, in turn, appears at first to be just another American fast-food chain: functional, efficient, consistent and process-driven, but somehow lacking soul. But while it is undoubtedly a tightly run operation, it also displays character and a pioneering spirit. It was a game-changer in the US, proving fast food doesn’t have to be cheap, processed and unsustainable. It describes itself as delivering ‘food with integrity’ and as ‘the gourmet
restaurant where you eat with your hands’. 

Sumner, just 33, was handed the task of launching the burrito behemoth in this country over three years ago. The first Chipotle Mexican Grill opened on London’s Charing Cross Road in May 2010 after 15 months’ preparation work. Sites have been added in Baker Street, Wardour Street and now St Martin’s Lane, with an Islington restaurant set to open in August, taking the UK estate to five in total.

Quality comes first

Chipotle (the last two syllables rhyme with ‘boat’ and ‘day’, according to its American principals) was founded in 1993 in Denver, Colorado, by Steve Ells, who remains chairman and co-CEO. It numbers over 1,000 restaurants in the States, and is opening three or four new sites every week. It’s fair to say it has been a phenomenon, rapidly establishing itself as a national favourite in its home market.

“I can understand why people might have been expecting us to open at a high pace over here, but you learn from others that hyper-growth from the onset is very risky,” says Sumner. “We will build from the crew up.”

The company’s recruitment and development philosophy is a core part of its DNA, but before that comes its belief in quality raw ingredients from sustainable and ethical sources, cooked fresh and loaded with flavour.

“This is not a traditional fast-food restaurant,” says Sumner. “We come to work at 6.30am and start skimming fat and shredding free-range seared and braised pork shoulder, braising beans and preparing fresh guacamole. There are no microwaves, no freezers, no buttons to push.”

Ells, a classically trained chef by trade, started out serving burritos and tacos inspired by the recipes of the burgeoning immigrant Mexican population. It was only around the turn of the century that he became more interested in the source quality of the ingredients and the welfare of the animals, land and producers involved. This was driven primarily by the firm belief that naturally raised animals produced significantly tastier meat and dairy products.

“People thought he was crazy taking these top-tier ingredients, that he had to pay a premium for, and selling them in a fast-food restaurant,” says Sumner. “But he was relentless in that pursuit of taste, and continues to be to this day.”

It’s an approach that has proved unique in the spectrum of nationwide US chains. But how does the business model stack up if you’re paying more for ingredients than your competitors? Its first advantage is the tightness of the menu offer: just four items – burrito, taco, burrito bowl, salad – with 30 ingredients used in total. “That hasn’t really changed in 20 years, so we know what we’re working with. We don’t change the menu every day as you would in a higher-end restaurant, or do ‘limited time’ offers like, say, a Darth Vader hamburger in a black bun for six weeks.” Instead, it has refined its process to the nth degree in a bid to ensure its limited selection is delivered supremely efficiently and economically.

Keeping it simple

The next factor in its favour, cost-wise, is the simplicity of the fit-out. The aesthetic is functional and standardised: basic chairs made from scrap wood, minimal décor and food served in plastic baskets. Aside from a commitment to sustainable builds, its key design signature is a Mayan-inspired artwork by sculptor Bruce Gueswel that appears on the wall of every site.

In terms of staffing, the London restaurants will have between five and 11 personnel on during a shift, with some restaurants serving up to 300 people an hour. There’s an even split between take-out and eat-in revenue across the group, with some sites leaning more towards the lunchtime office trade and others boasting a stronger sit-down dining business in the evenings. “Most restaurants typically build around their lunch trade, with a 60:40 ratio. But they are all open until 11pm, and the Soho site [Wardour Street] is certainly very busy then,” says Sumner.

Fully licensed, Chipotle’s drinks menu comprises freshly made margaritas, Brooklyn lager and a range of Mexican beers, as well as soft drinks. Average spend per head is between £10 and £11 – the price of a burrito with extra guacamole or tortilla chips plus a beer or juice.

Much has been made of the influx of Mexican food into the UK in recent years. Chipotle arrived soon after home-grown but heavily US-influenced operators Tortilla, Chilango and Barburrito had set out their fast-casual stalls. But while London now has its fair share of burrito joints, growth has been far from rapid or untroubled within the sub-sector.

This is largely because there is no history of Mexican food in this country and the population is still not familiar with the proposition, flavours or terminology. “Londoners are more aware of where their food comes from [than Americans], but the category is still very much in its infancy here,” says Sumner. “Customers regularly ask if they can have mushy peas on their burrito, referring to our guacamole, and they will call a burrito a wrap. Geography obviously plays a role – I grew up eating Mexican food from a young age, which is not the case here, so there’s a lot of education still to go on. We are all building awareness.”

He refuses to be drawn on further expansion plans outside the capital, steadfastly sticking to the company line of not looking beyond this autumn. But given the lack of understanding of Mexican food outside London – and the relatively high price point for a fast-food offer – there are still question marks as to its viability as a national chain.

Company culture

It has an even bigger challenge on the education front in mainland Europe, where it has recently opened in Paris and is searching for property in Germany. But the debut restaurant in the French capital is reportedly a sensation, with queues out of the door seven days a week.

“It’s a brand new concept and there’s no competition – it’s like a UFO has landed on Boulevard Montmartre.”

Where Sumner truly comes alive, however, is when talking about the company’s people culture. Chipotle is focused on internal development and promotion, from the bottom up. “Everyone starts as a crew member, we don’t really bring in managers,” he says. “I trained the team at Charing Cross  myself, running that restaurant every day.Three of the guys who began with me there have just been promoted by Steve to be ‘restaurateurs’, which means they run their own Chipotle.”

The Chipotle career ladder involves becoming a kitchen manager, then a service manager, then a GM, before potentially graduating to hallowed restaurateur status – something that can only be granted personally by Ells or his co-CEO. Indeed, Sumner’s official title remains ‘lead restaurateur’ in the UK, though he is effectively both MD and operations director. Restaurateurs can eventually oversee a handful of sites, while bringing on the next tranche of managers beneath them, though all Chipotles are 100 per cent company-owned.

Previous experience is irrelevant in the recruitment process.

“I’m looking for a few core attributes that maybe your mum and dad gave you and that make you who you are. I can train you to slice and dice and to grill chicken. It’s more about whether you are ambitious, curious, polite and presentable. If we get in good crew members, that’s where our future leaders come from,” he adds, with a tub-thumping oratorical flourish.

Sumner himself started out as crew, of course, although he was studying for his MBA at the University of Denver at the time, so wasn’t perhaps the typical new employee. Rising rapidly through the ranks, he is a vibrant example of the ethos he now advocates. Restaurateurs are even bonused on their recruitment and development record. “Our restaurateur programme is fundamental to who we are. I don’t wear a suit and tie, I come in and shred meat. That’s central to how we grow the business.”

Indeed there is no UK head office or central function. Sumner and European business development director Rex Jones work from the restaurants or on the move; everyone else is on the restaurant floors. “I haven’t found a need for it. My job is to build teams and run great restaurants. You can’t do a whole lot of that in an office."

This article first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Restaurant magazine, out now. Subscribe to the magazine here​.

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