Executive Insights | May 2010 | By Ellen Koteff

The 10 Most Innovative People

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Steve EllsBlessed with the spirit of an entrepreneur, the passion of an artist, and the attention to detail that can only come from a place of real confidence, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s founder, CEO, and chairman, Steve Ells, can innovate with the best of them.

Since launching the fast-casual concept in 1983, Ells has gone from one 850-square-foot Denver unit to changing the way America eats, one burrito at a time.

As a Culinary Institute of America graduate, Ells knows food and all its complexities, but that doesn’t stop him from keeping the menu simple, and the food as natural as possible. Chipotle’s Food With Integrity mission guides every purchase.

“We have visited farms with the leadership teams, restaurant managers, and area managers,” Ells says in a 2005 interview with QSR. “It’s a matter of getting out there and sharing the stories about Food With Integrity, and why it’s important, not only for the Chipotle brand, but also for animal husbandry, the environment, and ultimately, for great-tasting food.”

Over the years, Ells has been consistently recognized as a restaurant operator who doesn’t necessarily do things as they have been done before. Now boasting revenues approaching $1.5 billion, more than 900 units, and 24,000 employees, Chipotle continues to innovate and surprise.

In 2009 the chain began testing a low-roller menu, which offers smaller portions and prices, as well as a children’s menu. Likewise, Chipotle introduced the vegan Garden Blend burrito, containing a marinated meat alternative that is plant-based.

Paying close attention to the environment is also a mission at Chipotle and on display at the green restaurant in Gurnee, Illinois. The simply designed restaurant features an onsite wind turbine, among other energy-saving features.

“The atmosphere says something about the brand beyond just decoration. It’s architectural in nature. In our case, it uses very simple materials like plywood, concrete, and steel. Through architecture and good design you elevate these materials to something extraordinary,” Ells says.

Ells’ creative bent contributes heavily to the myriad innovations at Chipotle, but his attention to detail is equally a factor.

“Perhaps it’s because we’ve stayed focused on this simple operations system that we’ve been able to continually refine and improve details along the way,” Ells says.

“Our dedication to making the small details better, and some of the not-so-small details like where food comes from, have contributed to Chipotle’s success.”

The 2010 list of the quick-service industry’s 10 Most Innovative People was chosen by QSR’s leadership including its publisher, associate publisher, and editor along with the article’s author. Submissions were accepted but not necessary to be included on the list. Executives were chosen for their impact on the industry over their careers, not just in 2010. List participants had to currently hold the position of CEO of a multiunit quick-service or fast-casual brand to qualify.

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