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How Chipotle and Pizzeria Locale Pulled Off Their Secret Partnership

Looking back, there were several strange things about Pizzeria Locale's arrival in Denver last year. First, there was the concept itself, a fast-casual spin-off of an acclaimed Boulder pizzeria of the same name. Then there was its location, a corner spot in a downtown strip mall next to a Chipotle and a Noodles & Company. And Pizzeria Locale's custom-engineered state-of-the-art rotating pizza oven powered by gas and infrared perhaps should have aroused some suspicion as well. It was all a little out of character for Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, two of Colorado's most respected restaurateurs who are behind Boulder's fine dining gem Frasca Food & Wine.


That's because Pizzeria Locale had a secret. In a bombshell announcement back in December, Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson revealed that their Denver restaurant had a deep-pocketed partner that was sure to give them an edge among fast-casual players who have been racing to become "the Chipotle of pizza." Pizzeria Locale's secret partner was Chipotle itself.

Some local restaurant industry insiders had suspicions but, for the most part, the news of Pizzeria Locale's partnership with Chipotle was a shock. Only about 20 people at both Locale and Chipotle knew about the partnership when it began in the Summer of 2011. Bound by non-disclosure agreements, they would all spend the next two and a half years performing acrobatics in order to keep it hidden from other key players such as their contractor, their landlord, their employees, and, for a time, even their own publicist. What follows is a look at how — and why — Pizzeria Locale kept Chipotle under wraps.

Origins

News of the Chipotle partnership was a surprise even to restaurant obsessives, but it also made sense. Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells lived in Boulder throughout his high school and college years, and he opened the first-ever Chipotle restaurant in Denver in 1993. Over the last 10 years, Ells became a regular at Frasca, even holding the closing dinner there when Chipotle went public. He has spent so much time at Frasca that local insiders whisper about whether he is an investor in the restaurant, a rumor that Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson deny. But, in that time, the three restaurateurs have also become great friends.

Throughout those years of friendship, Ells would occasionally suggest partnering with Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson. "Bobby and Lachlan, to me, are really extraordinary restaurateurs," Ells said, adding that he's impressed not just by Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson's food, wine, and service knowledge, but also their "people culture" in which they promote and empower their employees. And so Ells floated various concepts through the years, including a Greek restaurant. (Three weeks after Mackinnon-Patterson had mentioned a love for shawarma to Ells, a top-of-the-line shawarma spit arrived at Frasca.) "To me, it was never about what kind of cuisine a collaboration would yield," Ells said. "That wasn't the important part. The important part was being able to work with people who knew how to create this culture."

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Pizzeria Locale, Boulder [Photo: Adam Larkey]

Nothing came of the initial ideas, though. "None of those had any stickiness because we weren't really emotionally invested in it," Mackinnon-Patterson said. Instead, in 2010, the space next door to Frasca became available, and Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson snapped it up to expand Frasca's badly cramped kitchen. The remainder of the space would become a new restaurant that would showcase the talents and interests of long-time employees, chef Jordan Wallace and director of operations Chris Donato. Wallace was interested in pizza, and so Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson sent him to live in Naples for a few months before coming back to open the original Pizzeria Locale, a sit-down restaurant serving traditional Neapolitan pies fired on a Stefano Ferrara oven.

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Pizzeria Locale opened in Boulder in January 2011, and Ells toured it shortly thereafter while at Frasca for dinner. "When I saw Pizzeria Locale #1 for the first time," he recalls, "I thought, 'My gosh, what if we could duplicate this experience, but in the Chipotle format that relies on great ingredients, classic cooking techniques, [and] interactive service?' Because I believe this is the new fast food model." By June of 2011, the three were in talks for a partnership.

"What if we could duplicate this experience, but in the Chipotle format?"

That partnership seemed like the perfect fit to both sides. Not only did Ells have respect for Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson as restaurateurs, but over a series of visits to Chipotle restaurants, Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson liked what they saw. They liked that Chipotle employees do some actual cooking. They liked that the chain used some serious kitchen equipment. And they liked that Chipotle was okay with 32 percent food costs. "There are white tablecloth restaurants that have lower food costs than that," Stuckey said. (For comparison's sake, Nation's Restaurant News reporter Lisa Jennings says that "the ideal food cost target generally for any restaurant chain is below 30 percent...but that may vary by segment.") Overall, it seemed like the chain was more in line with the Frasca restaurateurs' own mentality than they had thought. "We seem to have more in common than we have apart," Mackinnon-Patterson said.

Though Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson initially considered just replicating the Boulder restaurant — a sit-down neighborhood pizzeria — in Denver, they switched course by the end of that first Summer to a more fast-casual concept. It seemed a shame not to capitalize on the chain's strengths. "As we started working together, we realized that if we were going to challenge the relationship, we needed to challenge it more than [opening] something too close to what we already did," Mackinnon-Patterson said. "In other words, we wouldn't be able to benefit from the incredible resources that Chipotle has if we just decided to do a full-service restaurant."

Secrecy

People just about lost their minds when Chipotle announced in April 2011 that it was launching an Asian spin-off, ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, in Washington, DC. The burrito chain has a cultish following, and the media in DC and beyond watched closely as its new concept signed a lease, began both hiring and construction, and finally opened its doors. But, as Eater DC noted at the time, Chipotle was playing coy with the ShopHouse opening. The idea was to allow ShopHouse to stand on its own, wrote Fortune magazine, which further noted, "Ells frets that all the talk about ShopHouse could become distracting."

Nation's Restaurant News reporter Lisa Jennings explains that it's fairly normal for publicly-traded companies like Chipotle to play things close to the vest given that any expansion or concept development news has the potential to affect stock prices. When it came to Pizzeria Locale, Stuckey said that revealing the news was "scarier for [Chipotle] than us." But Ells brushes off those claims, pointing out that Chipotle did disclose its relationship to ShopHouse right from the start. "It's not scary for us," he says, adding that what Chipotle and Pizzeria Locale really wanted to avoid with the roll-out were distractions.

Expectations were likely to be high enough anyway due to Pizzeria Locale's success in Boulder and the restaurateurs' reputation from Frasca. Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson wanted to establish in the minds of the public that they were the ones driving the concept, not Ells or Chipotle. Plus, they wanted some time to get to know themselves as fast-casual restaurant operators, free from the pressure that would inevitably come along once Chipotle was revealed as their partner. "We knew it would get out of hand," Mackinnon-Patterson said.

Over the years that they spent developing the concept, Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson watched competitors in the fast-casual pizza arena describe themselves as "the next Chipotle of pizza." Those kinds of claims made Stuckey nervous. "You can't just say you're the next Chipotle of pizza, even if you're Chipotle," he says. And so Pizzeria Locale and Chipotle opted to keep their partnership quiet, looping in only about 20 high-level managers. That led to a rather awkward two-and-a-half years of aliases, back-door escapes, and rumor dodging.

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Pizzeria Locale, Denver [Photo: Adam Larkey]

Subterfuge in Two Vignettes

1) Baltz & Company publicist Sarah Abell:

In the Summer of 2012, Ells flew to Denver from New York, where he now resides, and invited Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson down from Boulder for a lunch meeting at Chipotle headquarters. When it was time to head back to Frasca for the start of service, Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson headed back downstairs to the main lobby. Sarah Abell, the Baltz & Company publicist who had been working with them for eight years, was sitting in the lobby. Baltz was the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic agency for for Chipotle and ShopHouse, and so she had her own meeting on the docket that day. But Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson hadn't told Abell about their Chipotle partnership yet.

"So we Oceans 11'd it," Stuckey says.

The restaurateurs turned on their heels, went back upstairs, and took another elevator back down to a different exit. They told Abell shortly after that. The secret was already getting to be way too overwhelming.

2) Pizzeria Locale contractor Tom Cella and his team:

"So, where are you from, Carl?" Pizzeria Locale's future contractor Tom Cella asked in a construction bid meeting with Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson.

Carl Behler is a development director for Chipotle who specializes in real estate and construction, two areas that Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson admit have never exactly been their strengths as restaurateurs. So when the time came to meet with Cella to talk about building the Denver restaurant, Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson asked Behler to join them. Behler had asked a lot of questions in that first meeting, enough questions that Cella seemed to become suspicious. After all, he had interviewed to build the original Pizzeria Locale and, as Stuckey says, "He knows us. We're not very sophisticated construction guys." Most independent restaurateurs tend not to have guys like Carl around asking questions. But the Pizzeria Locale guys hadn't planned a back story for Behler.

"Oh, this is Uncle Carl," Stuckey said.

"Our Uncle Carl from Florida," Mackinnon-Patterson chimed in.

They explained that "Uncle Carl" was retired from the construction business and helping them out for this new location. After they'd selected Cella for the job, the team made Behler a Pizzeria Locale email address and business cards that read, "Uncle Carl." Behler — who, for clarification's sake, has no relation with Stuckey or Mackinnon-Patterson — would be known as "Uncle Carl from Florida" for the rest of the construction process.

What Other People Knew

Pizzeria Locale employees:

On occasion, a delivery addressed to Chipotle would arrive at Pizzeria Locale Denver. When an employee would offer to run it over to the Chipotle outpost next door, management would just claim there was some confusion. But the trickiest delivery was that of the Pizzeria Locale uniforms, which are made by the same company that makes Chipotle's uniforms. When all the boxes arrived at Pizzeria Locale in the middle of a training session, they were covered in Chipotle tape. That all had to be cut off "feverishly" before anyone on staff saw it.

None of the employees at Pizzeria Locale Denver officially knew about the partnership, and Denver general manager Chris Donato says that his team didn't really ask questions about it. They certainly weren't supposed know that their paychecks were — and still are — paid through a bank account that Stuckey had set up to funnel the money from Chipotle without raising suspicions.

Would-be investors:

Pizzeria Locale Denver opened in May 2013, and it didn't take long for deep-pocketed and business-minded people to notice. About 10 times a day, guests would ask general manager Chris Donato whether Locale was planning to franchise out. Mackinnon-Patterson says that "significant players" in the restaurant world were coming to Denver, some bringing their entire teams with them. They would travel the 30 miles northwest to Boulder and dine at Frasca. And they would offer themselves up as partners. It all made Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey feel a little guilty. "They were investing in the opportunity to work together, and we couldn't be as candid," Mackinnon-Patterson says. Stuckey thinks those would-be investors probably assumed he and Mackinnon-Patterson were either clueless for turning down the offer or that they had won the lottery. Or, perhaps, they suspected that something was up.

Pizzeria Locale Denver regulars:

Jordan Roos used to eat lunch at the Chipotle in the plaza at Sixth and Broadway most weekdays. It's close to the architecture firm where he works, and it was quick enough so that he could cram both a workout and lunch into his one-hour break. After Pizzeria Locale opened, though, Roos started splitting his patronage between the two restaurants. He hadn't ever been to the original Boulder location before, but he liked that Pizzeria Locale Denver was just as quick and delicious as Chipotle. Over time, he began to learn the names of the Pizzeria Locale employees much the way he knows everyone on staff at Chipotle. Up until they announced the partnership, Roos says he had no idea the two restaurants were related. But, now that he knows, he feels less guilty about abandoning Chipotle for its hot new neighbor.

Restaurant industry insiders:

One group of people whom Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey suspect knew about the Chipotle partnership were restaurant industry insiders. Long-time employees at the Boulder restaurants say the rumors were circulating there. Mackinnon-Patterson, Stuckey, and Donato all say that the hardest questions to deflect in the lead-up to announcing the partnership were those coming from other chefs and members of the industry. But while it was perhaps some of these people who were leaving knowing-if-juvenile comments about Ells' involvement on Eater Denver back in August 2013, somehow the news still did not bust open.

Dealing With the Media

In September 2012, Stuckey told Eater Denver that the Locale team was looking for spaces in Denver for a spin-off that would be "much more casual" than the Boulder original, but with no mention of the Chipotle deal that had been struck more than a year earlier. "I felt terrible talking to the press and not being able to say they were our partners," Stuckey said.

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Pizzeria Locale, Denver [Photo: Adam Larkey]

When they finally signed a lease in December of that year, it set off warning bells for Eater Denver editor Andra Zeppelin. Pizzeria Locale, she noticed, was going into a shopping center anchored by Chipotle and Starbucks. Not exactly prime real estate for independent restaurateurs, and especially not the owners of a fine dining institution like Frasca. But Stuckey talked around Chipotle in their conversations, Zeppelin says.

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Even without the Chipotle connection, there was a media frenzy surrounding Pizzeria Locale Denver's opening in May 2013. Journalists and bloggers offered previews and early reviews, while Yelpers responded Yelpishly. According to publicist Sarah Abell, a couple of reporters asked about Chipotle when they wrote about Pizzeria Locale Denver. But they never asked the right questions, she said, and so she was able to roll out the new restaurant with tours and media dinners in just the same way she would with any other restaurant.

There was a media frenzy surrounding Pizzeria Locale Denver's opening in May 2013.

When the reviews came out in the months that followed, they were largely positive. Westword critic Gretchen Kurtz name-checked Steve Ells in her September 2013 review ("This is Pizzeria Locale, Steve Ells-style," she wrote). While 5280 critic Stacey Brugeman compared Pizzeria Locale Denver to Chipotle in the magazine's January 2014 issue. But both women tell Eater that the mentions were pure coincidence; neither one knew about the partnership.

Neither did Food & Wine restaurant editor Kate Krader when she dubbed Pizzeria Locale Denver one of the country's hottest new pizzerias in a July 2013 Eatocracy piece. Given her friendship with the Frasca guys, Krader says she believes the national media was largely surprised by the announcement as well. "I think I would have known if it was to be known," she said.

The partnership went unreported until its official announcement in December 2013.

Revelations

5280 critic Stacey Brugeman had been working on her review of Pizzeria Locale Denver for months. She had interviewed Stuckey in October of 2013 for the January 2014 issue of the print monthly. By December 2013, it was off at the printer and out of her hands. Then, on December 17, she got an email from Stuckey. He wanted to give her a heads up that the Wall Street Journal would be reporting the next day that Chipotle was a partner in Pizzeria Locale Denver. But, by then, it was too late to change her print review to reflect that reality. It was the only remaining review from a major local publication that had yet to drop.

Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson say that timing was coincidental. They weren't waiting for the last review to be filed, nor were they attempting to bury the news right before Christmas, as some have suspected. Rather, they say that they were finally prompted to come clean about the partnership when they decided to open another location. They didn't want to have to go through the leasing and construction process again with the help of good old Uncle Carl from Florida. And there were just so many more people within the company that were being brought into the secretive fold. Both Pizzeria Locale and Chipotle started to fear that they were going to be unmasked. "We both realized there were a lot more questions about it," Ells says. "People were starting to make the association. In order to just control it, we decided to announce it."

The Oven

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Much was made of Pizzeria Locale's oven when it opened in Denver in May 2013, and rightfully so. This gas-and-infrared-powered rotational oven is a beast that cooks each pizza in two minutes without — much of the time, at least — any input needed from an actual human. This oven was also a clue to Chipotle's involvement at Pizzeria Locale Denver.

"If you look back as a sleuth, how would Bobby and Lachlan develop an oven? Right there, someone should have been like, whoa, time out," said co-owner Bobby Stuckey.

In fact, it wasn't Stuckey and his co-owner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson who developed the oven. It was Mackinnon-Patterson and Chipotle CEO Steve Ells who got together with engineers to develop an oven that can make good pizza faster and with less expertise needed. The Naples-imported wood-fired Stefano Ferrara pizza oven Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey have at Pizzeria Locale's original location in Boulder is a beautiful piece of equipment that Mackinnon-Patterson argues just wouldn't work in a fast-casual restaurant. There are just a couple of so-called "sweet spots" in the Ferrara oven, Stuckey says, in which a pie can cook without too much work required. Otherwise, they need a trained pizzaiolo to keep an eye on the pie as it cooks, adjusting its position in the oven as needed to ensure just the right level of speckling in just the right places.

"So the question was how could we make this amazing pizza more possible, more often?" Mackinnon-Patterson says.

To build this custom oven, Mackinnon-Patterson and Ells brought a team of engineers to Pizzeria Locale Boulder to observe the pizza-making there as well as the particular spot in the oven where the floor temperature and the air temperature are just right for cooking a pizza in two minutes. Through many tests, the engineers then replicated those conditions as best they could so that in the two minutes that it takes for a pizza to rotate through the oven — first passing under a shield that allows the dough to cure for about 20 seconds before being exposed to the flames — and come out on the other side just right. But not always.

Mackinnon-Patterson explains that he wanted Pizzeria Locale's pizza-makers to be able to do some "cheffing" at the end of the process. So when each pizza comes around again at the end of its two-minute rotation, they assess whether it's dark enough or if maybe it needs to be rotated a little. As Mackinnon-Patterson says, "It basically gives you an excellent pizza that you can make even better."

And the oven itself is still getting better. Mackinnon-Patterson says that the engineers have been in to Pizzeria Locale to tweak the oven about seven times since it opened. And though this custom oven is more expensive than a Ferrara oven — Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson declined to disclose the cost, but a mid-size Ferrara oven costs about $9,000 — Pizzeria Locale hopes to be able to make more of these in the future as they expand.

After the Wall Street Journal broke the news on December 18 — "the day that changed everything," Mackinnon-Patterson says — it was everywhere. News outlets such as the Huffington Post, CNBC, USA Today and more all reported on the news. General manager Chris Donato says Pizzeria Locale Denver was "instantly crazy" once the news broke. By noon the next day, there was a line out the door. It stayed that way for the next week. Knowing that it was coming, the restaurant had prepared and staffed up for the onslaught, but Donato says that the intensity of interest after the announcement was nothing like he'd ever seen in his career.

Ever since, those who have been watching Pizzeria Locale Denver closely note that the restaurant seems to still be doing brisk business, an observation that Ells himself ties to Chipotle's reputation. "Pizzeria Locale was a little slow starting," he said. "And when we made the announcement there was this association between Chipotle and Bobby and Lachlan, sales went up."

The Next Chipotle of Pizza

Despite the surprise, it's not unusual for a concept like Pizzeria Locale to have a secret backer, according to Lisa Jennings of Nation's Restaurant News. As she noted in her own report on Pizzeria Locale's December announcement, Buffalo Wild Wings backs the fast-casual PizzaRev, while the founders of Smashburger and Quiznos have launched Live Basil Pizza, another competitor. So the secret partnership is not much of a surprise to people who watch the quick-service industry closely. The surprise really, Jennings says, is that Chipotle was not the first to corner this market in which companies everywhere are laying claims to being "the next Chipotle of pizza."

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Pizzeria Locale, Denver [Photo: Adam Larkey]

Indeed, Pizzeria Locale's debut as a partner with Chipotle is a timely one. According to Jennings, pizza is the hottest and fastest-growing segment of the fast-casual market right now. Chains such as MOD Pizza, Pieology, Project Pie, PizzaRev, Blaze Pizza, 800 Degrees, and Live Basil are all growing quickly. And they're all looking for the same type of locations — 2,000 square feet, with high volume at lunch and dinner, in-line or the corner of a shopping center — so it's a race of sorts as to who can snap these up the fastest, Jennings explains. Some of these chains are using franchising as a tool by which to achieve this goal.

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Pizzeria Locale, meanwhile, says they don't intend to pursue the franchising track, but rather will follow Chipotle's expansion formula. That strategy, Ells explains, is to create a demand, and then determine whether the economic model works and they are happy with the return. The final step is to look at the team and see who can step up to lead; according to Ells, 98 or 99 percent of all Chipotle general managers come from among the chain's crew members. "It's much different than the kinds of growth strategies you hear about from all of our competitors who talk about, oh, we're going to open up 100 restaurants or 500 restaurants," Ells says. "You hear these sorts of things. To me, that's not a strategy."

"Oh, we're going to open up 100 restaurants or 500 restaurants... To me, that's not a strategy."

In December, Pizzeria Locale and Chipotle revealed in their joint news release that they were looking for two new locations in the Denver area. And just this week, Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson announced that they have signed a lease on one of those new locations in Denver's Highlands neighborhood. Construction starts this Summer, and they hope to open in late 2014.

When asked why Chipotle didn't get to pizza before so many of these competitors, Ells chalks it up to opportunity. "When you find partners like Bobby and Lachlan and their team, and [you] have a history with them and [you] know the reason for their success — their ability to create a great dining experience, their ability to create a great people culture that attracts and gives opportunities to top performing employees — then I think you have a recipe for success."

Eventually, Jennings says that one of these fast-casual pizzerias is going to emerge at the top, though it's not clear how long that will take to play out as they continue to scramble for space and press. Pizzeria Locale has jumped to the front of the line of those pizzerias in the wake of the Chipotle announcement, Jennings said. "But now they have to execute."

Pizzeria Locale, Denver [Photo: Adam Larkey]

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