Why are America’s biggest fast-casual restaurants, from Chipotle to Noodles, born in Denver?

Fast Casual Restaurants by Nicole Frehsée

One night in 1992, sitting in the Boulder kitchen of childhood friend Steve Ells, Monty Moran ate the best burrito of his life. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “The pork had been roasted all day, and it was topped with cilantro-lime rice, fresh cheese, sour cream, and this beautiful chile-corn salsa.” Moran’s taste buds were prescient:
A year later, that burrito would become legendary.

Ells, a CU alum, opened the first Chipotle in a former ice cream store on East Evans Avenue near the University of Denver in 1993. Today, he sits atop a burrito empire worth $4.7 billion. Known for its massive, customizable burritos prepared assembly-line style, the chain includes more than 1,000 branches worldwide. While the original Chipotle was an explosive success — after a month, the restaurant was selling more than 1,000 burritos per day — “Steve was never planning on expanding,” says Moran, now the company’s co-CEO. “He wanted Chipotle to be a cash cow to support his fancy, sit-down, real restaurant. He thought he’d open a second location, then quit this fast-food stuff.”

Chipotle is just one of the Mile High City’s success stories. From Noodles & Company to Quiznos, a slew of fast-casual chains — eateries that offer meals served quickly, but with a focus on better ingredients and atmosphere than traditional fast-food restaurants — were either born or have their headquarters in the Denver metro-area. So what’s the draw?

“Whether it’s technology or restaurants, Denver has an entrepreneurial spirit. The population is highly educated, so ideas matter, and people have the courage to create their own paths.” — Kevin Reddy, CEO of Noodles & Company
“People from all over come to Denver for the recreation, scenery, and weather, so it’s a great slice of what America looks like,” says Tom Ryan, who founded Smashburger here in 2007. “It’s a very representative market, so it’s a great place to test concepts.” The city even attracts international citizens: “I’m from Toronto, and when I was asked to run Quiznos out of Denver, it wasn’t a difficult decision,” says Greg McDonald, the company’s president. (Quiznos began in Capitol Hill in 1981.) “People just want to move here.” The variety of Denverites’ backgrounds, adds McDonald, covers the “whole gamut of people’s taste profiles and flavors.”

Executives also attribute the fast-casual boom to something less scientific than demographics. “Whether it’s technology or restaurants, Denver has an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Kevin Reddy, CEO of Noodles & Company, which launched in Cherry Creek North in 1995. “The population is highly educated, so ideas matter, and people have the courage to create their own paths.”

In fact, most of Denver’s fast-casual founders were first-time restaurateurs with an idea, some seed money, and the hunch that the city would be a great locale to test their concept. In 1993, after eating at a New York City noodle shop, Boulder native Aaron Kennedy had the revelation that spawned Noodles & Company: Pasta is a diet staple of cultures around the globe, so why not offer various noodle dishes — from Asian to Mediterranean to American — in one place? By the end of this month, Noodles will have 246 stores nationwide.

Qdoba, too, was the brainchild of a Coloradan: Tony Miller, who started the Mexican grill in Capitol Hill in 1995 after returning home from an investment-banking stint in New York. Miller partnered with chef Robert Houser, an alum of New York’s famed Le Cirque, to bring San Francisco’s Mission-style burrito (a large flour tortilla stuffed with meat and veggies and wrapped in foil) to Colorado. Were the pair concerned about competition from Chipotle, which opened two years earlier? “Qdoba folklore says Tony really liked Chipotle’s food, so he approached [Ells], and said he wanted to go into business with him,” says Qdoba’s senior VP of marketing, Karen Guido. “I don’t think [Ells] wanted to have business partners at the time, so Tony decided to forge out on his own.”

Aside from inventive concepts, Denver’s fast-casual giants also hit on a winning formula with their Colorado-centric focus on ingredients. As more Americans eschew traditional fast food in favor of healthier choices — sustainable beef, organic veggies — Denver’s fast-casual restaurants have scrambled to the forefront of the movement. Chipotle, for example, only purchases antibiotic-free pork and chicken; it also buys naturally raised beef. “It costs us tens of millions of dollars to pursue our ideals,” says Moran of Chipotle’s food-with-integrity mission. “But everything we do is about sourcing the best ingredients.”

Adds Reddy, “Coloradans have active, healthy lifestyles, and they demand better attention to ingredients and sourcing. That makes the city a great model for where U.S. fast-food trends are going.”?

Introducing Garbanzo, Denver’s newest fast-casual smash.

When Alon Mor moved to Denver eight years ago, the Israeli native faced a dilemma. He craved the cuisine of his homeland — hummus, falafel, spiced rice — but couldn’t find anything that was to his liking. “You either make the food yourself, or you don’t eat it,” says Mor. “So I figured I’d create a restaurant that served it.” A 15-year veteran of the restaurant business, Mor opened the first Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill in 2000 near Arapahoe Road and I-25 with his partner, Ken Rosenthal, who founded Panera Bread. Today, there are 11 Garbanzos: 10 in Colorado and one in New Jersey. (The company plans to expand to other states in 2011, says Mor.)

“You either make the food yourself, or you don’t eat it. So I figured I’d create a restaurant that served it.” — Garbanzo founder and CEO Alon Mor

While Garbanzo’s fare includes the exotic — “Shawarma is still a little new to people,” says Mor — Coloradans have warmed to the food’s home-cooked taste (and the restaurant’s pitas, baked from scratch daily). Everything from the beef laffa to the baba ghanouj is inspired by recipes from Mor’s grandmother, mom, and aunt. And just to make sure he’s nailing the authentic flavors, Mor returns to Israel annually to research new menu ideas. “The customers in Denver are sophisticated, educated, and well-traveled, and they have open minds,” he says. “I’m not sure any of the fast-casuals, whether Chipotle, Noodles & Company, or Garbanzo, would be able to start in Alabama.”