|Dolores Park, Mission District - Anyone see Steve?|
When one receives a call from Hugo Ontiveros, son of Febronio Ontiveros - the forefather of the 'Mission Style' burrito in 1961, one sits up straight to listen. And listen I did... to stories of the sacred burrito that echo through memory chambers like a shout into a hippie-urban abyss. Amongst stories of Santana and origins of the 'Super Burrito' (to be discussed in a later editorial), Hugo uttered what might be taken as the antithetical name to Febronio - Steve Ells - the proprietor of the McDonald's burrito. The mention of his name unquestionably brings an air of dissent to many who are loyal to Mission taquerias; they believe that Ells owes more credit to the Mission than his Chipotle website would have us think.
Let's frame the context shall we...
If you haven't been in a coma or living in a cave since 1993, then you will be well aware of the burrito giant that has become Chipotle. In the first nine months of 2012, Chipolte rang in a monstrous $2.03 billion in revenue and opened 123 new stores to bring the total to about 1200 worldwide. Say what you will about the Chipotle burrito, as the fastest growing fast food franchise in America with McDonalds in the back pocket, they have created a formula that certainly seems to work. Steve Ells himself is first to concede that "Chipotle succeeds not because of the burritos; it works because of our system: fresh, local, sustainable ingredients, cooked with classic methods in an open kitchen where the customer can see everything, and served in a pleasing environment." Of course, I draw into question Ells' concept of a "pleasing" environment in an earlier review, but for the purposes of this feature especiale, I ask: how is Steve Ells justified to employ the word "classic" with regard to his "methods"?
Let's go back and find out where Steve discovered these "classic" methods.
If you navigate your way to the 'Chipotle Story' tab on their website, you'll find three sections: 'The Chipotle Story', 'Where Did We Come From', and 'Steve's Story'. Clicking on any one of them will reveal anything from neat little animations showing the beginnings of the chain to a piece of lined school paper on which Steve Ells writes a first hand account of his humble story - in courier type font no less. In all instances, Steve Ells and Chipotlesauraus begins in Colorado when Steve used an $85,000 investment from his father to convert a Madison ice cream parlour into a taqueria. And this is true - he did begin in Colorado. However, "beginnings" are never as straight forward as one thinks and Ells' pre-beginnings place him in San Francisco, where according to Hugo, he frequented the taquerias of the Mission while working as a line chef at Stars in the Civic Center shortly after attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Hugo went on to explain that there is no doubt that Ells often visited the taquerias of the Mission, including El Faro, to not only enjoy the burritos, but also to "study" the methods says Ontiveros. Hugo, of course, is not alone in making this suggestion. David A. Kaplan from CNN writes, "Ells loved the little taquerías in the Mission District and decided to open one back in Colorado, where he'd grown up." Ells himself, in an interview with Jessica Shambora with CNN Money, stated:
"One day, while sitting in a taqueria called Zona Rosa close to my house, I watched how the line crew took care of people in very short order. I took out a napkin and jotted down what I thought the average check was and how many people were going through the line, and I timed it. I thought, Wow, this thing makes a lot of money -- it could be a little cash cow that could fund my real restaurant. My dad gave me $85,000 -- part loan, part equity. I packed up within a couple of weeks and drove back to Colorado. It was the summer of 1992. The first Chipotle opened in Denver on July 13, 1993."
While Zona Rosa, as we all know, is on Haight St. and not the Mission, Ontiveros goes on to say that Ells frequented many taquerias in the Mission with the same purpose in mind. Ontiveros goes on to point out that, 'there was no competition in Colorado' as far as quality taquerias were concerned, which propelled Chipotle to quickly gain the revenue to attract investors such as McDonalds and then rule the mexican fast food chain world.
And this is all fine as we all have our roots. Condemning Ells for taking a great and "classic" method from the likes of El Faro or Taqueria in the Mission, would be like condemning Raymond Carver for sounding too much like Hemingway or Chekov. Any resentment in this regard would be unfounded if it weren't for the fact that in all three sections of the "Chipotle Story" tab, there is not one mention of Ells' time in the Mission, which will certainly leave a bad taste in the mouths (double entendre very much intended) of those such as Hugo Ontiveros.
I for one respect Steve for his accomplishments; I would love to be a billionaire.
Enjoy your McBurrito.