McDonald's takes hard look at south-of-the-border fare

Burger giant now controls Chipotle Mexican chain, to use it as taste-test lab

Food services

November 25, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- You won't find chipotles -- ripened and smoked jalapeno peppers -- in any menu item at the typical McDonald's fast-food joint.

But you will find them in abundance at every Chipotle Mexican Grill, the growing chain of so-called "fresh Mexican" restaurants that recently opened in Chicago and happens to be owned by the Oak Brook, Ill.-based burger behemoth.

In a move two years ago that shocked the food-service industry, McDonald's Corp. ended its long tradition against acquisitions to buy into the tiny Denver-based company. Recently, McDonald's bumped its stake to more than 51 percent to take control.

Why would the world's largest restaurant chain want anything to do with a company that has only 36 locations around the country?

"They're the best at what they do," said Jim Cantalupo, McDonald's international operations chief.

Essentially, McDonald's wants to use Chipotle as a lab to experiment with new tastes that might someday find themselves on its menu board.

Chipotle dishes out custom-made burritos and tacos with ingredients uncommon to most quick-service restaurants. Certainly, Chipotle's offerings contrast sharply with McDonald's burger-and-fries fare.

Chipotle founder Steve Ells calls it "quick gourmet." The Culinary Institute of America graduate created the original recipes and still insists on producing fresh food prepared before customers in an open kitchen.

The recipes call for toasting cumin seeds that go into marinade for steak, chicken or pork. A roasted corn-salsa made with baby corn-kernels is spiked with charred, peeled and chopped Anaheim and pasilla peppers. Fresh cilantro goes into the rice.

Most menu items are priced below $5 and Chipotle also offers alcoholic beverages such as Mexican beer and margaritas. Wolfing down a braised beef burrito with a margarita on a recent evening, Tom Vivialdelli said he found Chipotle to be a refreshing change.

"I don't feel greasy or disgusting after eating here," said Vivialdelli, 25.

Young professionals like Vivialdelli make up Chipotle's core customer base. The chain usually opens new stores in bustling neighborhoods in urban areas across the country, such as Minneapolis, Kansas City and Dallas.

Upscale Mexican-food chains like Chipotle are a growing trend in the Chicago area and elsewhere. They're catering to people who've grown tired of the artery-clogging fare found at many Mexican restaurants.

"People who have grown up on fast food are looking for something new but still fresh and high quality," said Rodney Anderson, president and founder of Panchero's Mexican Grill, which is planning on 20 restaurants in Chicago over the next five years.

Lackluster sales in fast food prompted giant McDonald's to take an interest in Chipotle, restaurant analysts said. The burger chain's domestic share of the quick-service burger market remained flat between 1993 and 1998, and the company opened only 92 restaurants last year.

But don't look for Chipotle burritos at your local McDonald's. Both companies are adamant about keeping the concepts separate.

Pub Date: 11/25/99

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