Chipotle bucks the struggling restaurant trend, by predicting the future. What’s so tricky about that?!

A year ago, the prevailing wisdom among urban analysts was that restaurants would serve as the lodestar for any further downtown revitalization.  I shared this sentiment, particularly in recognizing the recent, fashionable emergence of the food hall–a smattering of diverse small-kitchen eateries under one roof.  The reality seemed, then as now, that most other retail—certainly those establishments selling exclusively durable goods, and especially conventional enclosed shopping malls—would face continued challenges competing with the online marketplace, unless the retailers themselves could nimbly adapt to this new purchasing paradigm.  (After all, what more is the food hall than a trendy variant on the traditional mall food court…but without the mall?  Is it possible that the mall has become the albatross of an otherwise trendy restaurant cluster?)  Even those retailers that have competently adapted to the digital marketplace would find it difficult to justify operating so many bricks-and-mortar locations, which undoubtedly explained why so many retailers have either contracted their physical footprint or closed altogether.

Conversely, restaurants have demonstrated a resiliency to this retail implosion because, by and large, their product remains tethered to a service—the experience of ordering and expecting the delivery of freshly prepared food—while continuing to operate as a social venue.  As shopping continues to decline as a popular communal recreational activity, restaurants have taken up much of the slack, along with its watering hole cousins.  Sure, to some extent, as the Information Superhighway continues to redefine commerce, the restaurant and hospitality industry have felt the pinch as well, resulting in the closure of less competitive chains concomitant with the emergence of newer, edgier, and auteur-centered restaurants, even in cities that had never previously hosted much of an indie restaurant scene.  Still, these closures were modest in comparison to the industry’s growth: for every shuttered Ruby Tuesday, two or even three new independent restaurants would open.  By the end of 2019, in aggregate, it appeared that, despite widespread shedding of jobs in the retail sector, restaurants, bars, breweries, coffee shops and other hybridizations of food and service were forging bold new paths.  For the talented restaurateur, the 2019 mantra seemed to be “Keep pushing the envelope!  The sky’s the limit.”

Well, that was then.

The turbulence of 2020 crushed that paradigm.  Restaurants in the era of COVID simply cannot under any metric rest on their laurels.  Right alongside some long established department stores, a growing number of regional or national restaurant chains are collapsing.  Though California Pizza Kitchen, Chuck E. Cheese’s, Le Pain Quotidien, and Friendly’s have not yet shuttered completely, it is likely that all will close locations before they emerge from their Chapter 11 proceedings.  The nuanced distinctions between various restaurants’ business models and food preparation techniques has clearly demarcated the winners and losers: some establishments (both independent/local and corporate/national) simply cannot easily adopt a carryout only or outdoor dining only approach.  And thus, they close right along with the retailers.  As of the beginning of December 2020, nearly 17% of all restaurants have closed for either the long-term or permanently since the start of the pandemic—a figure that amounts to over 100,000 establishments.

Staggering those these figures may appear, some fast-casual chains aren’t simply transcending the challenges that they pandemic imposes; they’re altogether thriving.  McDonald’s and Taco Bell have refined their online ordering practice to drum up brisk business alongside their conventional drive-thru sales; Domino’s and Papa John’s, enjoying a carryout or delivery model prior to COVID, have changed little and are breaking the bank (a welcome change especially for Papa John’s, which faced leadership turbulence and declining sales just eighteen months ago).  And many fast-casual chains, increasingly the status quo among burgeoning restaurant start-ups, have refined their ordering apps and are keeping their heads above water.  One critical example of this final category is Chipotle.

Like most successful fast-casual operations, Chipotle Mexican Grill has adapted beyond the automobile oriented suburban milieu (where most of them germinated) into urban real estate as well.  Take this example in downtown Colorado Springs.

It sits on Tejon Street, the pleasant, largely revitalized commercial spine of this fast-growing city’s squeaky clean downtown.  The presence of an urban Chipotle comes as no surprise: I can recall a storefront location many years ago in Evanston, Illinois, long before the fast-casual burrito was a national concept.  This is nothing new.  It’s also no shock to see one in medium-sized city like Colorado Springs; the chain’s origins are just 75 miles up the road in Denver.  This location has real staying power: a Google Street View from 2008 shows no change from the present.  Downtown Colorado Springs has known Chipotle well before it became a nationally recognized name.

So what’s the big deal with this particular location on Tejon Street?  A peek inside should offer a few more clues.

Chipotle in DT Colorado Springs: a larger footprint than usual

As Chipotles go, this interior is huge—probably nearly twice the size of the usual establishment.  Perhaps it’s just a popular enough restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs to justify this size, and the extra floor space is undoubtedly helpful in the age of COVID.  But did Chipotle corporate genuinely seek a large space and this is the result of the search, or was the space simply already available and Chipotle found that it worked well enough?  I’ll probably never know the answer to that chicken-egg question, but I can speculate based on what I see.  And I’d wager it’s the latter scenario.  Pivot a bit to the left from the previous photo, and it might be obvious why.

Chipotle using old clothing display "stage" for additional seating

This elevated platform, with stairwell access to a few additional tables, shouldn’t set off any ADA alarms, even though it clearly is not ADA-compatible.  Seating abounds that is accessible to persons with disabilities, so offering a few premier window seats at a different grade does not impose any undue burden.  But for a restaurant like Chipotle, it’s also pointless.  Elevating this seating eighteen inches does not confer a greater ability to appreciate the windows, and it creates an unnecessary (albeit unlikely) potential tripping hazard.  I cannot think of any reason why Chipotle corporate (the company does not franchise) would have invested in this “stage” unless it occasionally uses it to host musicians or other performing artists.  While Chipotle’s beer and alcohol sales may encourage patrons to linger a bit more than they do at a Wendy’s or Burger King, most people do not choose to go to a fast casual establishment for either live entertainment or a leisurely dining experience.  Therefore, because the platform at this Colorado Springs Chipotle serves no visible discrete purpose, I suspect it predates Chipotle’s leasing of the space itself.  Much like the inordinately large floor space, it came with the package.  Chipotle didn’t install it.

Many readers at this point will be able to guess what a historical analysis of this site would yield.  As evidenced through the Google Street View linked earlier, the Chipotle occupies the part of the ground-level store front space of the old Hibbard and Company building, and, not surprisingly, Hibbard and Company was a family-owned department store that closed in 1996.  The expansive room, most suitable for the display of large amounts of merchandise, used a bay window to emphasize certain displays to outside passers-by.  From within the premises, the platform helped distinguish certain items over the others—perhaps special sales or new arrivals.  Within the retail typology, interior spatial modifications can establish a hierarchy that steers customers’ eyes; this hierarchy isn’t often useful in a typical restaurant (certainly not a fast-casual one), but it’s not detrimental enough to warrant removal either.  The building’s owner may have prohibited its elimination, but Chipotle corporate figured it could work with it.  And probably received a better deal in the leasing agreement as a result.

This humble operation (or not-so-humble, since it’s really big) of a national chain bespeaks trends writ large: as retail and goods continue to recede, more service-oriented businesses must take their place.  The above photo, from elsewhere on Tejon Street, demonstrates the typology that justified these narrow, low-slung buildings in rapid succession.  From circe 1900 to 1950, virtually all of these minor structures hosted retailers that sold durable goods, punctuated on rare occasion by a restaurant.  In 2020, the uses are almost inverse; while a few specialty retailers remain (no doubt abetted by the outdoorsy tourist sector that attracts people to Colorado Springs in the first place), but restaurants comprise a sizable and growing proportion of the tenants.

Whenever Chipotle leased the space at the Hibbard and Company building (some time after 1996 and before 2008), the owners were likely desperate to secure any tenants they could find in a flagging downtown retail environment.  These owners couldn’t be choosy, and a fast-rising restaurant chain seemed like a surefire deal in terms of stability and low risk of default.  (This assumption has proven correct: Chipotle has occupied this site for at least twelve years, which is considerably longer than the average tenant, whether retail or restaurant).  The interior features, like display-oriented fenestration and a mini-stage, may not function as amenities to restaurants, so chances are Chipotle got a sweet leasing deal on this unusually large space, which has in part impelled it to linger as the rest of downtown Colorado Springs revitalizes around it.  It’s a trend we’ve seen amidst other typologies as well: former banks, train depots, or general stores have ceded their physical forms to restaurants and bars and breweries and distilleries—the signature first-floor tenants of the entertainment-oriented 21st century downtown.  Whether this trend sustains itself as we crawl our way out of the COVID doldrums remains to be seen.  Let’s hope so—these fine old buildings need tenants!

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