Good company: Gretchen Selfridge

Gigi Sukin //June 9, 2015//

Good company: Gretchen Selfridge

Gigi Sukin //June 9, 2015//

In 1995, Gretchen Selfridge played hard to get. After two months of job offers from Chipotle Mexican Grill – then a two-shop operation – she met founder and CEO Steve Ells, and changed her mind.

Fast-forward, and from its humble beginnings at the corner of Evans Avenue and Gilpin Street, the publicly traded burrito empire has grown to 1,780 restaurants, 53,000 employees and a $21.05 billion market cap. The Denver-based company has redefined fast food. Meanwhile, Selfridge, 50, worked her way to restaurant support officer, the equivalent of co-chief operating officer.

During our lunchtime chat, she harkened back to her first gigs in the service industry and her conviction that the fast track to success requires uncovering your replacements along the way.

CB: What did you want to be when you grew up?

GS: I always knew I wanted to go into hotels or restaurants somehow.  All through high school I worked in a resort in western New York.

And then you came to Colorado?

My first job out of school (at Northeastern Junior College, in Sterling) was at Bennigan’s in the ‘80s. I moved to Fort Collins – a little bit bigger town – and worked there for about three years.

How did it go?

I wasn’t old enough to wait tables, so I started as a hostess. I told the manager, teach me everything I can learn before I’m 21. So I worked with him in the training department and opened a lot of Bennigan’s around the United States and eventually moved to Denver.

Where you’ve been ever since?

I went to Washington, D.C., because a friend of mine said there were lots of job openings there. I ended up working as a headhunter. I was trying to place somebody and I saw an opening with a company called California Pizza Kitchen. They were brand new. So I called them and they ended up hiring me. I worked for them for a while, but I really missed Colorado.

So you moved back in 1990?

And I haven’t moved since. I got started working for a company called Premier Ventures … running Caldonia’s out in Aurora for about six years. I worked probably 100 hours a week.

And then Chipotle comes a’ calling?

I was at Caldonia’s and going around doing table touches as a manager and struck up conversation with (Erich Overhardt). Two months later … he wanted me to come work with him for Steve Ells on a new concept. This was the end of ’95.

But you weren’t interested?

It took me about two months to say yes. I worked at a full-service restaurant, and at the end of ’95, there really wasn’t this fast-casual category. It was either fast food or full service. So, I kind of felt like, oh, I’m going to work for a fast-food restaurant now?

What sealed the deal?

Steve fascinated me. He’s so innovative in the way he talked about food. I just thought he was a genius. I wanted to follow this guy anywhere.

So, he started me as a manager of the second restaurant.

Did you have a hunch it would turn into the empire it is today?

I could have never imagined it’d grow this big. In fact, in Steve’s first restaurant we didn’t even have utensils. As I started working in the restaurant, it was amazing …  [Customers] would line up outside the door. I think it was just something new – nobody had seen Mexican food on a gourmet level.

How did you help the concept grow?

We opened about six stores in ’96 and six in ’97– and we really didn’t have any structure. I became the facilities manager and helped with the design of the restaurants, helped hire people, and we needed training. Steve never wrote down the recipes, so we had to figure it out and put some systems in place over several years.

And the menu has hardly changed despite the expansion.

People in the beginning were like, ‘Are you going to add more?’ We just want to keep it simple and do it really, really well … I think consumers respond with their forks. That’s why we do the sales we do right now. It wasn’t until 2000 when [Steve] started sourcing farmers to raise our animals for us and we went more organic, more local. He was appalled when he saw the factory farms.  So, we’re all very conscious about where food comes from now. We are changing the way people think about fast food.

But the top dog of fast food had a paw in Chipotle along the way?

In ’98, McDonald’s got involved with us. I was an area manager. [The McDonald’s scouts] came into my restaurant to do their secret visit. They all dressed the same, came in, got one of every item and then went out in the car and ate it.

We called them our rich Uncle Ronald. They didn’t get in our business. But they really did help us grow, especially during those years when we started going outside of Colorado.

The year Chipotle and McDonald’s split – 2006 – was the same year you went public. How was that transition?

There’s fear because you worry about what happens when Wall Street and investors start trying to butt into your business. But we’ve done a great job of focusing on the right things. It hasn’t changed my job.

These days, what does your job look like?

My title is restaurant support officer. I oversee half the U.S.

The thing I’m most passionate about is our people culture. At Chipotle, we believe if you take care of the people in the restaurants and provide opportunity for them, they will take care of the operations. We have a whole career growth program – so when you start as a crewmember, you can work your way up to manager. Ninety-seven percent of our managers came from crew with absolutely no experience at all.

Staffing is the most challenging part of my position, because we can teach you how to roll a burrito, but we can’t teach you to be smart and happy. We have tons of stories of folks who have worked their way up.

What’s your go-to advice for people who view you as a role model?

Something we always talk about at Chipotle is if you want to move up, you’ve got to train your replacement. Find out what you’re passionate about and then have an impact on everyone around you. I never set my sights on being an officer, but that’s how I’ve gotten to where I am, is the influence I’ve had on developing folks around me.

Last but not least, what’s your Chipotle order?

I usually like to do just two little single tacos or a small bowl and very light on the brown rice.  I usually go through the line and whatever jumps out at me and smells the best at the time is what I pick, because there’s nothing, other than raw tomatoes, I’m not a fan of.