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Long Awaited Chipotle Offers “Quick Serve Casual” Mexican

by Gene Marrano

The Roanoke Valley, long considered an “under-retailed” area, has begun to see more interest from long established national chains in recent years. One of the latest entries in that category is Chipotle, a Mexican restaurant at Towers Shopping Center that has had them lined up outside the doors since opening last week. Chipotle –  after the hot pepper of the same name – offers a fairly simple menu, with hormone-free organic meats and local produce when possible.

Patrons order their food at the counter and watch as it is prepared right in front of them. Burritos, taco kits, quesadillas and burrito “bowls” featuring a choice of meats, beans, salsa and cilantro (lime rice) are priced under $7.00. Grilled chicken and steak are marinated with the chipotle peppers; barbacoa shredded beef is made with cumin and chipotle. “It’s kind of on the spicy side,” notes Area Manager, Rich Waldo. Vegetarian dishes are also on the menu; margaritas and Mexican beer are available for those that want something stronger than soft drinks.

Waldo said the fare at Chipotle and how it is served can be pegged as “quick serve casual,” a step between fast food and a sit down eatery.  “Everything we do is fresh,” said Waldo, who was in town to oversee the opening week. Chipotle hopes to “become a part of the community,” added Waldo; judging by crowds that included some who camped out before it opened, it appears they are off to a good start.

Elsewhere he noted, aficionados of the 18-year-old chain (which started in Denver) eat there “three or four times a week. A lot of our crews get to know customers on a first name basis.” Waldo is especially fond of the signature pork dish, carnitas (“so moist and tender”) that can be served in an overstuffed burrito or a bowl and is braised for five hours during the preparation process.

“Everything we do is fresh,” he noted; “we feel that it adds flavor.”  That freshness includes several different types of salsa, made from scratch everyday. (Waldo likes the roasted chili corn salsa). About 22 people were hired by Chipotle for the Roanoke outlet, undergoing four days of training before opening day.

Chipotle looks for farmers who treat their livestock more humanely, feed them a vegetarian diet (no animal byproducts) and don’t pump them full of unnecessary hormones or antibiotics. The model for sourcing in general, said Waldo, is “food with integrity. We really focus on quality.” It’s all about the flavor, added Waldo, who works out of northern Virginia. Many of the vegetables used are prepared daily – they don’t arrive fully processed, losing some of their distinctive flavors.

Chipotle, located in what used to be a video store, can seat about 50 inside with an outdoor patio for two dozen. “The whole town is really excited that we’re here,” said General Manager Josh Gruber as large lunchtime crowds spilled outside the door on the third day of business. Gruber managed another Chipotle outlet on the Virginia Tech campus before taking on his new position here.

Chipotle may have discovered that the quick serve casual niche might just be the right ticket – and another welcomed choice for Roanoke area foodies. “The response is more than I could ever hope for,” said Waldo, “I’m really impressed with how the community has embraced us.”


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