Wednesday was opening day at Chipotle Mexican Grill in Rohnert Park, the newest eatery of choice for a quick lunch or early dinner. Except that today, there was no way it was going to be quick.
The line stretched from the counter around the table and down the hall, stopping just short of the bend to the bathrooms on the far end. Outside, every table was full beneath the umbrellas on the patio, with diners grabbing their first Chipotle burrito, taco or salad made in the fresh, healthful style of the international chain.
Quite a turn-out for opening day. Or was it opening day?
"I came here for lunch yesterday," said Ken Cahill of Cotati. "The fitness club [24 Hour Fitness] had an open invitation, and lunch was free. I came back today after my workout - it was good."
Working the counter at the lunch hour was youthful general manager Benjamin Slowik, who's been with Chipotle for eight years. There he was, helping build out the custom burritos or "bowl" - the burrito without the tortilla, a signature dish - slinging salad, frijoles and carnitas shoulder-to-shoulder with the new employees.
When he grabbed a break, I asked him whether the long line was good-crazy or bad-crazy. “It’s good-crazy, as long as the line flows," he said without hesitation.
I asked about the reported free lunches yesterday, and he admitted, "We had the limited opening yesterday just to get the crew's feet wet. They have to know their job.”
Slowik, from Ohio originally, has been in the North Bay for the last two years with the Chipotle's in Novato and Terra Linda. If he’s excited by opening his first restaurant, it’s the integrity of the food that he can’t stop talking about.
That, in fact, is the Chipotle Corp.’s motto, “Food with integrity.” It means organic produce whenever possible, naturally raised animals, sustainable farming, local sources and vegan options. It’s a nice line to have in a health-conscious food culture, and in the just 20 years the chain has grown to 1300 Chipotles in the U.S. and outlets in Canada, England and France. Not Mexico, though.
Ironic, that, as a "chipotle" is a smoke-dried jalapeño, a key ingredient in their own cuisine.
But Slowik is emphasizing the integrity stuff, not the ethnicity. “It’s hand-prepared, too,” he said. “The lettuce is chopped by hand, the meats are cut by hand.”
All that hand-prep takes time, and the cooks are all at work by eight. The doors open three hours later, at 11:00 a.m.
Each burrito, bowl, taco or salad is made by hand for each customer in the tray-run food line. Each is customized – there’s nothing assembly-line about it. There’s a staggered charge for meats – steak, chicken, carnitas, barbacoa – and all the extras of your choice. There are also veggie fillings and “sofritas,” a new item on the menu, organic tofu with chiles, roasted potatoes and a blend of spices.
But beyond the basic price, there are no extras, no layering on of “toppings” that adds to the cost. “We don’t want to nickel and dime our customers,” said Slowik. “We just want people to love our food.”
When I went to leave, the line had wrapped around the corner and had filled the hall to the far end. There could have been 60 people in line. Slowik had told he estimated the first day's customers at about 1200 people fed.
But there was an eagerness to try the new place, chatting among friends and strangers, no jockeying for position or grumpiness. It looked like a party.
Outside, a big Fex Ex truck was parked next to the Chipotle island, a stand-alone building in the Grocery Outlet parking lot. The driver was eating a burrito.
I asked Troy Cushman if there was any lack of fast-food restaurants in Rohnert Park. He looked at me as if I must be kidding.
“Not really. This one is new, I thought I’d try it.” Cushman has been a Fex Ex delivery driver in the area for 10 years, he told me. He went back to his burrito. “It’s good.”
Chipotle’s is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Go before the party’s over.