#COeats 2: The Denver restaurants that changed the way America eats

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DENVER -- Our state has long been home to famous restaurants.  Did you know Noodles and Company, Garbanzo, Tokyo Joe's, Quiznos, Qdoba, and Mad Greens were all started in the Denver are?  And Boston Market, Einstein Brothers, Red Robin and Lamar's Donuts are all now headquartered in the Denver area.  And then of course, there's Chipotle.  A restaurant goliath that started in a tiny old ice cream shop near the University of Denver.

Hundreds of burrito lovers have made a journey to that first Chipotle location on Evans.  Walk down the hidden stairs to the storage room under the restaurant, and you'll find a guest book - scrawled on wood and on walls.  Food fans from all over the world, marking in ink - their sojourn in restaurant history.

“We probably get, I would say, three to four customers a day who come in here just to say that they made the pilgrimage to Evans,” said Gretchen Selfridge, Restaurant Support Officer for Chipotle.

Selfridge joined the company when they opened restaurant number two.  Even though she couldn’t pronounce the name.

“I said it wrong for the first year and nobody corrected me,” Selfridge told FOX 31 Denver.  “People tend to flip the “I” and the “e” around, so I've heard it said ‘Chipol-tee’ and ‘Chip-oney.’  There are all kinds of ways of pronouncing it.  But it's ‘Chi-pote-lay,’” Selfridge added.

No matter what you call it, you have to call it a phenomenon.  What they started in the old Dolly Madison ice cream shop Denver has sprouted into a behemoth.  Some 1800 restaurants worldwide, and revenue of more than $4-billion last year.

“I think the generation, like Millenials right now, care much more about where food comes from, and they've become a little bit of food snobs.  And so in the day when we were all growing up, we went to fast food, they won't eat at fast food now,” Selfridge said.

It is impossible to exaggerate how Chipotle has changed the entire restaurant industry.  Though at first, it didn't seem like it would happen.

It took a couple months for them to catch on.  A lot of people didn't really 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.

Over the past two decades there has been remarkably little change to how they do what they do.

“The food's gotten better, where we source our food has gotten better,” Selfridge said.

The one thing that has changed is the amount of competition.

“The Colorado environment is really just kind of open to trying new things,” Selfridge said.

In many ways Chipotle is responsible for that competition - with others flocking to our state, hoping to replicated this success.

“It probably doesn't hurt that you have a company like Chipotle that's successful that started here, you know, if you're going to start a brand new concept, why not go into a market that's proven to be successful in that category,” Selfridge said.

And some have taken what knowledge gained working at Chipotle and turned it in to big success elsewhere.  Like the guy who now runs Noodles and Company.

Kevin Reddy worked as an executive at McDonald’s, then went to work for Chipotle when McDonald’s heavily invested in that company a few years back.  All of it, helping him gain the knowledge it takes to now run one of the biggest contenders in the fight for your fast casual food dollars.

“You know, at McDonald’s I learned great systems and attention to detail, and infrastructure.  And with Chipotle, I learned a lot about food.  And ingredients, and also this real intense desire and focus on the guests needs and how do you blend what's important to them,” said Reddy, CEO of Noodles and Company.

Some 20 years after they opened their first restaurant in Denver's Cherry Creek North neighborhood, Noodles now serves 60-million people a year.  They have 470 restaurants - and they're now opening an average of one per week.  Reddy says Colorado deserves a lot of credit for pioneering restaurant concepts.

“Everyone thinks about New York and San Francisco and the culinary innovation that comes out of there or out of Europe, but I think the entrepreneurship in Colorado has figured out how do you take those flavors and trends, and do something wonderful for the masses,” Reddy said.

As for why Colorado is the hub for fast casual - it's anyone's guess.  But Reddy knows, our state attracts the kind of people who want to eat food like this.

“Well educated state, it's a high energy state, it's an active state.  I don't know anyone who doesn't love the mountains,” he said.

Noodles and Company - like so many other restaurants like it - have benefited from a new trend among families.  We're eating out way more than we used to.  In fact, this year, for the first time ever, sales at restaurants and bars surpassed spending at grocery stores, according to the Commerce department.

That bodes well for the future of places like Noodles and Company.

“You know, in five years, at the rate we're building restaurants, we could be serving over 100 million.  But you don't get there if you take your eye off the ball about serving the individuals that you have today,” Reddy said.

CONTINUE READING: #COeats 3: Healthy fast food?  There is such a thing

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