Son of Chipotle
Greg Atkinson / January 2012
Having shown that a sustainable Mexican fast-food chain is not oxymoronic, Steve Ells is at it again, launching a Southeast Asian prototype for a test flight in Washington, D.C. Greg Atkinson checks out the culinary engineering.
When ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen opened last September 15 in a historic building on Connecticut Avenue, just off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., echoes reverberated throughout the world of fast food. The last time ShopHouse founder Steve Ells first turned on the lights for one of his ideas was in July 1993, when he opened the first Chipotle Mexican Grill in the former home of a Dolly Madison ice cream store near the University of Denver campus. With an $85,000 loan from his father, Ells started the casual burrito stand with the intention of using the proceeds to finance a fine dining restaurant. Eighteen years later, a white tablecloth establishment is still nowhere in sight, but more than 1,000 Chipotles have materialized, with a net income somewhere in the neighborhood of $179 million and total revenue pushing $2 billion.
That success was made even more impressive by an investiture from the McDonald’s corporation that earned the burger giant more than $1 billion between 1998 and 2006, when McDonald’s divested from all its outside restaurants to focus on the core brand. But the Chipotle chain really earned street cred by focusing on sustainably grown, humanely raised products. What had been a hallmark of smaller, independent restaurants à la Chez Panisse and Blue Hill at Stone Barns became front page financial news when a fast-growing chain demonstrated that environmental and social responsibility could be lucrative on a relatively grand scale. So far, ShopHouse spokespeople are not promising another thousand units or any potential profits for investors, but early indicators suggest that ShopHouse will carry on at least two, if not all three, of its older sibling’s family traditions: a focus on sustainability is already in place, as is the kind of broad appeal that made Chipotle an instant hit.
ShopHouse may not be fine dining, but compared to Chipotle, it’s pretty swank. Roasted maple wood seats, reminiscent of teak, flank one wall, and sleek Eames-like chairs with a vaguely Asian line hold court on the opposite side of the tables. A line of Sriracha bottles, neat as a row of soldiers, stand at attention on a shelf on the whitewashed wall. Like its older sibling, the new fast-casual eatery allows diners to step up to an open kitchen and choose from an array of starches, proteins, vegetables, sauces, and garnishes to assemble a customized meal. And like the food at the older Ells-araunts, ingredients are natural, sustainably raised, and conscientiously prepared (early murmurings of fish sauce in the curries foisted on unsuspecting vegetarians aside). Instead of rice, beans, and burritos, think rice, vegetables, and bánh mì. Made-from-scratch Southeast Asian curries stand in for salsas and add zest to pork and chicken meatballs and “artisanal organic tofu.” Instead of stainless-steel hotel pans set in a hot line, All-Clad pans nested into chic black PaperStone countertops frame the colorful ingredients.
If the menu at Chipotle is essentially burritos and tacos with infinite variations, then the menu at ShopHouse is bowls and bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches), also with infinite variations. Diners first decide if they will have a bowl or a sandwich. If they choose a bowl, they choose a starch—brown rice, jasmine rice, or rice noodle. Then they choose a protein—grilled chicken, grilled steak, pork and chicken meatballs, or spiced organic tofu. Vegetables come next: Chinese broccoli, eggplant with Thai basil, long beans with onions, or spicy charred corn. Then more choices: sauces, including red or green curry and tamarind vinaigrette, and garnishes like Singapore-style pickled vegetables, fresh herb salad, or green papaya slaw. Finally, the bowl eater opts for a crispy topping—toasted rice, crispy garlic, or crushed peanuts. Sandwich eaters face the same gauntlet with a foundation of freshly baked French roll in place of a bowl of rice or noodles.
“Steve has been saying for years that the systems behind Chipotle would transfer to other cuisines, but the focus has always been on Chipotle,” says Tim Wildin, director of concept development for Ells’ restaurants. And a 2010 trip to Asia finally prompted the launch of ShopHouse to test the theory.
“Steve was in Japan, and I am originally from Bangkok,” Wildin says. “So I said, ‘Meet me in Southeast Asia. I’ll show you the kind of food I’m talking about, the everyday food served at hawker stalls and shophouses.’” In urban Southeast Asia—Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Cambodia—shophouses constitute the core of most cities’ historical districts. Upstairs are residential quarters; on the street level are shops and restaurants. “The food is quick and casual, but it isn’t like Western fast food at all. It isn’t mass-produced in any way. Sometimes it comes off a burner on the back of a motorcycle. It’s fresh and made to order. It’s very colorful with lots of produce and flavorful condiments.”
So Ells, along with Chipotle culinary director Kyle Connaughton, corporate chef Nate Appleman, and culinary manager Joel Holland toured Wildin’s home turf in and around Bangkok. “We ate for two weeks, took some cooking classes, and tried to absorb as much of the cuisine as possible,” Wildin recalls.
The culinary talent in that band of cooks is formidable. Before Connaughton joined Chipotle in 2011, he had spent two years working for Michel Bras in Japan, then served as head development chef in the experimental kitchen at The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s Michelin three-starred modernist bastion in Bray, England. Before coming to Chipotle in 2010, Appleman, formerly of A16 in San Francisco and Pulino’s in New York City, was named Rising Star Chef by The James Beard Foundation. Holland polished his skills at Spago, Chinois, and Nobu; since early 2011, he has spearheaded the restaurant group’s efforts toward ever more sustainable sourcing. Most recently, he has partnered the restaurant’s purchasing power with the innovative efforts of “Grass Farmer” Joel Salatin, the founder of Polyface Farm, profiled as the hero in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who single-handedly prompted the pastured poultry industry in North America.
Ells’ own culinary chops are often eclipsed by his success as a businessman, but they are significant. After earning a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Ells attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and went to work for Jeremiah Tower at the late, great Stars restaurant in San Francisco. Tower had previously served as the first executive chef at Chez Panisse and might have influenced Ells in his commitment to all things local and sustainable. Those words weren’t really part of the zeitgeist then; but an underlying commitment to social justice and environmental concerns was thoroughly infused in the Cuvée Panisse Kool-Aid, which Tower and Ells, no doubt, imbibed.
Today, Connaughton sees the group’s commitment to local and sustainable products as instrumental to their success. “It’s volume that makes it possible for us to make changes in the food supply system,” he says. Chipotle started using Niman Ranch and other naturally raised (hormone- and antibiotic-free) pork in 2000 and made a commitment to naturally raised chicken in 2002. By 2010, 85 percent of the chain’s beef was naturally raised as well. “When you’re talking about 22 million pounds of chicken every year, you have a certain influence on the way things are done,” deadpans Connaughton.
A highlight of the team’s power tour of Southeast Asia included a family meal at Wildin’s aunt’s home outside Bangkok. “At that point,” recalls Wildin, “the trip wasn’t about strategic planning or any kind of concept development. It was about pure love of food and sensory experience.” Nevertheless, by the end of the trip, a strategy was formulating. Over Gin and Tonics in the hotel bar, “we had sketched some menus on cocktail napkins.” The core of that menu remains intact: noodle and rice bowls and Vietnamese-style sandwiches topped with hand-crafted curries, vegetables, and crunchy condiments like toasted peanuts and fried shallots.
The strategy also included drawing on the resources of Wood Stone Corporation in Bellingham, Washington. Wood Stone is best known as the producer of over 9,000 wood-burning ovens, installed in California Pizza Kitchens, Wolfgang Puck Cafés, and various other restaurant kitchens in 75 countries. “Wood Stone had the flexibility and the wherewithall to assemble this custom one-piece kitchen suite that included an industrial-sized wok, a four-foot plancha, a two-burner stovetop, and a fryer in one seamless stainless-steel unit,” says Connaughton.
Wood Stone co-founder Keith Carpenter says Ells contacted him about developing some custom stainless-steel equipment. Carpenter and his culinary team met with Ells, Appleman, and Connaughton and fabricated a prototype suite. “To have a continuous work surface with everything built in, where nothing can fall in between, streamlines the cooking process,” he says. And should the prototype ShopHouse become a model for a whole bunch of others, Wood Stone is ready. “We have an optimated, automated metal fabrication system for producing stainless-steel equipment.”
So will ShopHouse be the next Chipotle and soon be replicated across the American landscape? So far no one’s saying, although Ells announced a second D.C. location in mid-January. Within one week of the ShopHouse launch, Tom Sietsema, restaurant critic for the Washington Post, called it “one of the best fast-food ideas in years.” It may seem obvious that ShopHouse is made to order for expansion, but Chipotle team members seem to be relishing the early stages of the project and savoring the flexibility that comes with a single-city operation. “Asian Kitchen is just one restaurant,” Wildin said before its twin was announced. “Trying to introduce anything new with more than a thousand stores is problematic.”
But already Shophouse has been fruitful—and is multiplying.