By Don Southerton, CEO Bridging Culture Worldwide and Burrito Lover
In 1997, I moved from the East Coast to Denver, Colorado. A part-time college-age employee at our office would come to work in the late afternoon and before his evening shift often devour a huge rice, bean, and meat burrito wrapped in foil. Back East, I’d never seen what I learned was a “Mission style” burrito, but it was apparent the young man found the food tasty, and more important, filling. Intrigued, I eventually stopped in Chipotle, one of several trendy burrito Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) that were popping up around Denver. I recall the QSR’s unique décor, however it was the “build your own burrito” that I found most appealing.
Over the next 5 years, chicken burritos became a regular part of my diet. Interestingly, Denver was home to 2 rival QSR burrito brands Chipotle, which opened in 1993 near the University of Denver campus; and Qdoba, which was founded in 1995 at Grand and 6th Ave in Denver. Originally called Zuma and then Z-TECA, the name was changed to Qdoba to avoid confusion with other Mexican themed restaurants. As for a favorite, I do not recall having a preference. Most often location and appetite drove my decision on whether it was a Chipotle or Qdoba (Z-TECA)—both were clean, offered fast service and the food was satisfying.
After relocating to Southern California in 2003, Chipotle’s eventual expansion into the San Diego County area meant I could once again enjoy my Denver burritos—in what would become a weekly treat.
Last fall, upon returning to Denver, and now with a very strong brand loyalty to Chipotle, Qdoba did not have the same appeal. This was in part to my work involving top QSR concepts where Chipotle is seem as the undisputed industry leader–similar to Apple is with technology—and in part due to some poor reviews for Qdoba’s franchise operations in California.
Nevertheless, like years before location and appetite drove my decision to give Qdoba another try. Rather critical at first with Qdoba, I’ve only found some slight differences in taste, but overall they offer the same fast service and filling burrito—just like Chipotle.
So which is better? Surveying people in Denver on which is better– Chipotle or Qdoba– is like asking someone in California if they like Starbucks, Coffee Bean or Peet’s Coffee. They all command brand loyalty.
For the Denver area all Chipotle and most Qdoba are company owned stores. Both HQ’s are in Denver with competition strong and standards high. As for me after 6 months of Denver burrito “study,” it seems staffing is key and after months of neutrality, I’m leaning toward Qdoba. Partly because Qdoba teams see more engaged and eager to connect with the customer, and part because they seem less “corporate.” That said, location still most often drives my decision on whether it’s Chipotle or Qdoba, since both provide great value, quick service, and a healthy, tasty burrito.