UPDATE: Take a look at the amazing new Chipotle video! (It's worth reading through the comments.)
Twenty years ago, a chef named Steve Ells opened an unassuming Mexican grill in a 30-by-30 space in Denver. He called it Chipotle, for the smoked and dried jalapeño pepper; it was the first in a pioneering chain of what are known as fast-casual restaurants. (McDonald's swooped in and bought a controlling interest in the company in 1998, sold it again eight years later,) Today, there are 1,400 Chipotle stores (and nearly 40,000 employees) committed to sourcing and serving what Ells, back in charge again, calls "Food With Integrity."
Ells trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked at the flashy Jeremiah Towers restaurant, Stars, in San Francisco but he really liked what he ate at the taquerias in the Mission District. Returning to Denver, he started Chipotle in 1993 with a short menu and has kept it that way.
The big appeal of Chipotle is that its burritos, tacos, bowls and salads are assembled to order, with customers selecting their fillings of chicken, carnitas, steak or barbacoa, adding rice, beans, sour cream, and guacamole as they progress down the cafeteria-style line. "If you just do a few things, you can ensure that you do them better than anybody else," Ells tells trade magazines. Not on the menu at Chipotle are many staples of California taquerias: head, cheek, lip, tongue. But now there's one thing new: tofu.
There's always been a vegetarian option (that is, beans, no meat), but now they've raised the ante with a tofu concoction called sofritas. Chipotle is rolling out the newcomer from its California stores to Oregon and Washington.
It's an invented name; the word sofrito is Italian and Spanish for the lightly sauteed vegetables at the base of risotto. Chipotle's sofritas are made with shredded tofu (organic, non-GMO, of course) that's braised with chipotle chilis, roasted poblanos, and a blend of aromatic spices. I tasted it before I knew it wasn't meat; it was delicious. And it's sure easier to sell exotic-sounding "sofritas" than dull old "tofu."
There are now four Chipotle stores in Seattle proper; the newest is at Broadway & Union, a dozen or so throughout the region. Next target: South Lake Union, notoriously difficult for restaurant operators. Cactus seems to get it right; Cal's American Kitchen got it wrong. Dozens of SLU food trucks are swarmed by thousands of Young Amazonians every lunchtime: that's the target market. Chipotle isn't the cheapest (although you can get away for six or seven bucks if you stick with a basic burrito); its strength isn't price but speed. Even though there are some 60,000 possible choices and configurations, you can literally be out the door in under a minute. The Broadway store, says GM Richard Jones, does 400 orders a day, average check a shade over $10.
Chipotle's biggest rival is Qdoba (another invented name), a similarly priced but smaller Mexican fast-casual chain owned by Jack in the Box (only 600 stores, but more prominent in Seattle). You can compare them on Pike Street downtown: Chipotle's on 3rd, Qdoba closer to 2nd. As of this writing, Qdoba's arsenal does not include tofu.