Steve Ells, Spring 2011
Thank you, Chancellor DiStefano for that introduction. And thank you to the senior class council for asking me to be here today. President Benson, friends and family, and most of all – to the class of 2011 – congratulations!
As I was preparing to talk to you today, I started to get really panicked about this speech. And that’s unusual because I speak in public a lot, and I’ve had to get used to NOT being shy about being in the spotlight. Chancellor DiStefano mentioned the reality show. Actually, when you look at the ratings, maybe it doesn’t count as the spotlight. But I was really struggling with what I was going to say today. After all, this is such a special and pivotal moment in your lives, and you deserve some really good advice. And I feel I owe that to you. So I racked my brain, and the idea that kept coming to me was service.
I’m thinking about service in very broad terms. It’s really the act of finding something within yourself that you care deeply about, and then sharing it with others. And so this is my advice to you: Find out how you can serve others while doing what you love.
It turns out that serving others is where it’s at in this life. It makes you feel good, and it’s the right thing to do, and … it’s the best way to ensure that you will have a great career, and make a great living. In fact, I think this is a pretty good definition of success: Serving others, while doing what you love. Each of you has qualities that no one else has… Interests that no one else has… Ideas that are uniquely your own… Things that you really like to do. And I am here to tell you: the world desperately needs you to share your special qualities, interests and ideas.
At this point, you may not know HOW your particular qualities and interests will ever be useful in the service of others. But that’s OK. When I was sitting where you are, neither did I! My story may be a useful example.
Now, I need to tell you that I did not start out thinking this way. I was not some do gooder who set out to try to serve people. Actually, it was a lot simpler than that. I just loved to cook. I mean, I loved it. I loved everything about the kitchen. I started cooking when I was a little kid. I remember trying to master my technique for making scrambled eggs when I was seven. Later on, in grade school, I started watching cooking shows, including Julia Child, and tried to replicate the recipes. Later, in high school and college, I started hosting dinner parties all the time. I would invite a bunch of friends over and cook really elaborate meals. It was great fun for me… it helped me get better and better at what I loved doing… and it allowed me to meet some of the most important people in my life.
Just recently, one of these people pointed out to me that I wasn’t just throwing dinner parties. He pointed out that I was a man on a mission, that I was totally obsessed with showing people a perfect dining experience. I remember one of these dinner parties; I took a friend shopping for food with me to buy ingredients. One of the things I was making was a Caesar salad, which, 25 years ago, was kind of a cool thing to do. Even though we were only having a few people over, I was standing there in the produce aisle literally filling the shopping cart with romaine lettuce. I had maybe a dozen or 18 heads in there. And he said, “why do you need all of this lettuce?” And I said, “We’re only going to use the perfect, crunchy, light green interior leaves.” Well, all of this lettuce was quite expensive to me at the time, I couldn’t afford it. And this kind of freaked him out. But these were the lengths I went to because I was obsessed with making the salad perfect.
I was obsessed with trying to make food that was perfect. Still today, I just can’t stand to see people eat bad food. It tears me up. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. For those dinner parties, I would obsess for hours about every detail of the upcoming meal. Searching the local markets for the best ingredients. Researching recipes. Spending the hours and hours in the kitchen. And when everyone arrived, I’d swing into action. I was so busy through dinner that I didn’t get to socialize as much as I would have liked, or even to enjoy much of the food I’d prepared. But I was in heaven. And you know what? I’d done ALL the work. I’d spent ALL my money. I’d gotten to eat only a small amount of the food. And then I was left with all the dirty dishes. But I was the happiest one in the room! And it gave me a sense of well-being. And all I could think about was when I was going to do it again… and what I’d cook, and how it was going to be even better the next time.
So… What does that tell you? It tells you that the one giving the most is often the most satisfied. Now, I told you that serving others can lead to a great career, but it doesn’t always present itself in an obvious way. For instance, you all know I started Chipotle. And in retrospect my career seems like it followed a clear path: My love of cooking would lead to culinary school… To working in restaurants… Then to starting one of my own. But I had no idea at all it would turn out like this. I was just living life. I had no idea that this passion of mine had anything to do with my professional future. Even when I chose to go to cooking school, I had no goal of starting a restaurant, let alone a chain. I just wanted to know more about cooking!
I think my dad was really concerned, too. Here, his oldest son, who just graduated from CU, was now going to do his post graduate work in a kitchen! Back then, it was not exactly an obvious recipe for financial freedom! So, after cooking school I went to work in one of the great restaurants in the country at the time, it was in San Francisco. And after a couple of years there, I decided that I wanted to start a restaurant of my own. But since I knew that restaurants require a sizeable investment, and frequently fail, I needed something to provide a revenue stream for this full-scale restaurant idea. So I thought I’d first open a little burrito restaurant, based on the tauqerias I was introduced to in San Francisco. This would serve to fund and keep afloat the “full-scale restaurant I was thinking of.” I decided to call this little burrito restaurant Chipotle Mexican Grill. I remember I would describe to my friends what this place was going to look like, and the vibe I was going to create. I went into excruciating detail about the recipes and preparation methods of all the menu items. For instance, I WASN”T going to buy canned beans. I was going to buy beautiful black beans and cook them from scratch. And to do that I’d pick fresh oregano off the stems and chop it just so… toast cumin seeds until they just released their essence and then grind them by hand in a mortar and pestle. I would sauté all of this with fresh garlic and onions and chipotle chilis. Then simmer all of this together with the beans for hours until they were perfectly tender. I wanted to elevate everything, including the humble black bean.
My friends thought I was silly. “Sure, Steve, you can taste the difference between cumin seeds that came from a jar, and those that you toasted and ground with your mortar and pestle. But other people won’t know the difference.” But remember, I was a man on a mission! I didn’t care if they could tell the difference! I wanted everyone to eat great food. It was more important to me than anything else. And that, I think, is where you find the deepest satisfaction: when you set out to serve others, and go beyond their expectations. When YOU care more about what you’re providing, than they do. I think everyone has the capacity to do that. Everyone has the ability to create something special, give something extraordinary, and turn people on to new ideas.
As Chipotle grew, we began buying a lot of food, and I became increasingly curious about where this food was coming from, and how it was being raised. I started visiting farmers and ranchers and really tried to understand how they were raising their food. And that’s when I started seeing that much of the food system in this country is really one that’s based on exploitation, and I was totally uncomfortable serving this food at my restaurants. The thing that was really transformative for me was when I saw how pork was raised. Most pigs in this country are being raised on factory farms. They’re raised in confinement, in awful, awful conditions. In that environment, there’s exploitation on so many levels…the welfare of animals is being disregarded… so many antibiotics are being used that antibiotic- resistant strains of diseases are becoming a big problem… independent family farmers are being displaced… and we, as consumers, are tacitly buying into that system. At Chipotle, we said, “We don’t want our success to be based on that kind of exploitation.” So I worked with a co-op of family farmers in Iowa, who were raising hogs the right way. They roamed outdoors, or stayed in deeply bedded barns. They weren’t fed antibiotics. And these farmers became suppliers to Chipotle. Through working with these farmers, we were able to supply all of Chipotle with this really great pork. And sure it costs more, but the benefits – in terms of the quality of what we were providing our customers, far outweighed the costs. And you know what? Our customers noticed the difference.
This has led us on a journey to find the best ingredients for all of our food. And we call this, “food with integrity.” You all might know of a farmer named Joel Salatin, whose farm is featured in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and in the film, Food Inc. He’s a supplier for two of our restaurants in Virginia, and he’s become a friend over the years. I visited Joel again just a couple of weeks ago. And what I find amazing about Joel is that he’s raising delicious pork, beef, and chicken, but he’s doing it in a way that leaves the land in better condition than when he found it. He does this in a way that shows respect for the animals he raises. He has respect for the customers he sells his meat to. He really cares about them. And he has a beautiful farm that he’ll be able to pass on to his kids, and this grandkids. HE is serving others while doing what he loves! He’s really been an inspiration to me to go out and find more and more farmers who are dedicated to feeding people food that was raised with this same kind of care… in a sustainable way. And now, it’s totally fulfilling to us to look at every ingredient on our menu, and to make sure it is something that we are proud of. And what’s really great about this, is that our customers DO notice. They CAN tell the difference.
And I think that’s the lesson that I learned… that it’s incredibly fulfilling to serve others when you’re doing what you love.
So what about you? What thing do you care more about than anything else? How can you apply your passion to the service of others? Each of you has exceptional skills or talents: Some that you learned here at CU, and some that helped you get into CU in the first place. And while these skills and talents may not seem so profound to you today, I can promise you, they can set you apart. And if you make service your journey, one of the results will be personal success, a great career, and financial success, sure….but those things will not be the most meaningful or the most important. The most important will be that you will have a positive effect on others, and you will feel a sense of deep fulfillment, as one who has given of yourself. One who has left things a little better than you found them.
Graduates are often told to think about their future in terms of what the world needs. And that’s a great way to look at it. But the world needs a lot of things. So many that it can be overwhelming. What the world needs most is passionate people who serve others. And who do it in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of other people, or our land, or our morals. If we get enough people doing that, then everything falls into place – for you, and for the world.
Thank you for letting me be a part of this special day. Congratulations to the University of Colorado graduating class of 2011!