Business as usual: Cultivate Festival is vintage Chipotle

Chipotle Mexican Grill has been different from the start, beginning with the fact that the founder, Steve Ells, came from a culinary institute, not a business school.

Then there’s the way the Denver-based chain with the “Food with Integrity” mission statement has marketed itself – or hasn’t. Chipotle has grown to more than 1,300 restaurants yet had never aired a national TV commercial in its 18-year history until this year’s Grammy Awards – a cute but serious message in which Weeble-like characters see the meat industry magically transformed with humane animal-raising practices, a Chipotle trademark.

That stands in stark contrast to the typical fast-food chain approach, which Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold describes as “lots of limited-time or seasonal offers, heavy television and heavy media support for those offers, which causes temporary spikes in sales.”

“That’s a very expensive way to market a restaurant,” Arnold says. “We’ve always maintained that the way people find great restaurants isn’t by television advertising, it’s through word-of-mouth, it’s through reviews and references from friends and things like that,” he says. “It’s more about building relationships with people that are more meaningful and less transactional in nature.”

That approach is evident in Chipotle’s creation of an all-day event dubbed “Cultivate Festival,” slated for Oct. 6 in Denver’s City Park that will bring together food, farmers, chefs, artisans and musicians, along with more than a dozen Colorado craft beer makers. Chipotle held the first such Cultivate Festival last year in Chicago and drew 17,000 attendees.

“For year two, we thought it would make a great time to bring it to our hometown,” Arnold said. “Of course, Denver is our oldest market; it’s our most dense market. And the city has a great and really up-and-coming food scene.”

Joe Osborne, the marketing director for Avery Brewing, one of the participating craft brewers, says Avery was approached by Chipotle about the event and didn’t need coaxing.

“It was pretty much a no-brainer,” Osborne says. “Our brand is all about high-quality beer, a lot of care and consideration going into what we’re putting into it ingredient-wise. There’s a lot of synergy there.”

There’s also a philanthropic aspect. Proceeds from beer and wine sales will go to a program called The Lunch Box, which helps transition school lunchrooms from processed foods to made-from-scratch meals. Although beer and music will be the attraction for many (see for details), the most Chipotle-esque aspect will be the chef’s tent, featuring notable chefs from around the country as well as Chipotle’s own chefs, who will be offering up what Arnold describes as “some unusual Chipotle-inspired menu items.” (But no burritos).

Chipotle chefs Nate Appleman, Kyle Connaughton and Joel Holland all came from distinguished restaurant backgrounds to form the core of Chipotle’s Culinary Development Team. Among other things, they were behind the launch of Chipotle’s ShopHouse Southeast Asian Grill, which opened in Washington, D.C., a year ago.

This chef-centric approach to fast food obviously hasn’t gone unnoticed by competitors. Taco
Bell recently has begun marketing more upscale offerings of its own, credited to chef Lorena Garcia, who once starred alongside Ells as a celebrity judge/investor on the reality show “America’s Next
Great Restaurant.”

Arnold doesn’t sound concerned. In this case, imitation may be the finest form of futility.

“Some of our influences and some of the menu items or ingredients we use are easy to mimic,” he says. “What’s much harder to copy about Chipotle is the soul. Chipotle has the soul of a chef. It is a chef-founded and chef-run company to this day, and I think that’s the really hard piece to duplicate.”

Others seem to agree. Last month when Esquire magazine named Ells the “Most inspiring CEO in America,” the story pointed out that his original motivation for launching Chipotle was to generate seed money to finance a “real restaurant.”

The Esquire writer asked Ells if he still thought about that original restaurant vision. Ells’ response: “We open three of those every week now.”