Chipotle’s Denver history dates back a quarter-century

DENVER -- To understand Chipotle's Denver roots - just walk down a flight of stairs at the restaurant chain's very first store, on Evans Avenue, near the University of Denver.

Right there on the basement rafters, you'll see Steve Ells signature. A time capsule in permanent marker, dating back to the birth of a burrito behemoth 25 years ago.

Ells is the founder and former CEO of Chipotle.  In 1993 - he turned an old Dolly Madison ice cream shop in Denver into a global restaurant powerhouse.

On Wednesday, the restaurant chain's Denver ties were severed with the announcement the company is moving its corporate headquarters to Newport Beach, CA, not far from where the new CEO, Brian Niccol lives.

But Denver is where it all began.

"(The Evans) store opened in '93, second one opened in '95, and then in '96 we opened six more - so we started to get some momentum by then," said Gretchen Selfridge, when FOX 31 interviewed her back in 2016.  She's one of the company's longest employees, and she says they had no idea how Chipotle would transform Denver dining.

"It took a couple months to catch on, a lot of people didn't understand the concept, and in fact when we first opened this restaurant, we didn't have a menu board, we didn't have a menu, we only served burritos and tacos, we didn't even have utensils," Selfridge said.

Before long Chipotle redefined dining the world over. The company's Denver success encouraged competitors to give it a go here too.  Noodles World Kitchen, Qdoba, Tokyo Joe's and Garbanzo all started in Denver in the wake of Chipotle's success.  In many ways, Chipotle gave birth to the entire 'fast casual' dining movement.

"When I started with Chipotle, there wasn't this 'fast casual' category. It was either fast food or full service," Selfridge said.

"We'll always be proud of our Denver roots," Chipotle's new CEO said Wednesday.

They are roots that seemed to be deepening.  Chipotle had just remodeled its flagship store near DU.  They had just signed a 15 year lease to move their corporate headquarters to a brand new skyscraper in downtown Denver.

Now they're abandoning Colorado for of all places - the coast. Leave it to social media to sum up the way so many Denverites feel:

To learn more about Chipotle's history, and it's impact on Colorado cuisine, watch our 2016 FOX 31 special, "Colorado Eats: The New Fast Food Revolution."

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