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Orange County Grows its Row of Restaurant HQs

Chipotle Just the Latest of Numerous Eatery Chains to Call the OC Home
May 28, 2018
Among several major restaurant companies based in Orange County is Taco Bell Corp., headquartered in this Irvine building.



Los Angeles has its Hollywood movie and TV mecca, and San Diego has its concentrations of craft brewpubs and biotech companies. With the news that Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill will soon move its headquarters to Newport Beach, Orange County has reinforced its standing as a significant operational cluster for major restaurant companies.

Chipotle did not announce a specific location. Among other likely factors that spurred the choice, the area is the home base of Brian Niccol, who joined Chipotle as CEO earlier this year after being poached from rival Taco Bell, based in nearby Irvine.

But Orange County is also where multiple restaurant operators, including some major national and regional players, have made their home base over the past three decades. The region is already home to the headquarters of at least 20 big companies in that industry, with the list also including another rival, Del Taco, as well as In-N-Out Burger, Weinerschnitzel, Johnny Rockets and Pick Up Stix.

“I don’t think it’s been specific business incentives, but the companies in that industry have definitely been choosing to locate here,” said Wallace Walrod, chief economic advisor for the Irvine-based Orange County Business Council. “In the (economic development) industry, they call it conglomeration - in other words, business clustering.”

Walrod said that Orange County cluster over the years has come to attract highly trained restaurant industry professionals, and also support companies that specifically serve the restaurant industry, including advertising agencies, consulting firms, and accounting and law firms.

  Related News  Chipotle: From Single Shop to Surprise DepartureMAY 24, 2018  |  MOLLY ARMBRISTER


OC’s Restaurant HQ Roster
Southern California’s Orange County is home to the headquarters of more than a dozen major national and regional restaurant companies. Here’s a sampling of operators, with their HQ city:
Taco Bell, Irvine
El Pollo Loco, Costa Mesa
Del Taco, Lake Forest
In-N-Out Burger, Irvine
Wienerschnitzel, Irvine
Johnny Rockets, Aliso Viejo
Sizzler, Mission Viejo
B.J.’s Restaurants, Huntington Beach
Pick Up Stix, Laguna Hills
Ruby’s Diner, Irvine

The well-known beach lifestyle vibe of Orange County has also attracted restaurant companies looking to be associated with that lifestyle branding. Also not hurting is the region’s strong tourism industry, led by top visitor generators like Disneyland, which makes the region a good place to test out dining and menu concepts on a broad audience.

“There’s a big contingent of international tourists, so that helps to make this a great place for companies that operate restaurant industry focus groups to have their operations,” Walrod said.

No specific Newport Beach office location had been announced by Chipotle or its brokers as of mid-day May 24. Over the next six months, Chipotle will be transitioning its Denver and New York office functions to Newport Beach and Columbus, Ohio, with Newport serving as the official HQ site.

The move will impact approximately 400 employees in Denver and New York during the fourth quarter of 2018, with some being offered relocation and retention packages. The company’s 70,000 field operations supervisors and restaurant employees are not part of the reorganization.

“The consolidation of offices and the move to California will help us drive sustainable growth while continuing to position us well in the competition for top talent,” said Chipotle CEO Niccol in a statement.

Among other factors that are notable about Chipotle’s choice of headquarters is that it is moving directly into the home base of four other large restaurant competitors. The three largest of the OC-based restaurant operators - Taco Bell (Irvine), El Pollo Loco (Costa Mesa) and Del Taco (Lake Forest) - compete directly in Chipotle’s Mexican-fare wheelhouse, as does the smaller Real Mex Restaurants Inc. (Cypress), operator of brands including Chevy’s and El Torito.

Southern California is also home to another Chipotle rival, San Diego-headquartered Qdoba Mexican Eats (originally based in Denver), which was recently sold by parent firm Jack in the Box Inc. to private equity firm Apollo Global Management in a $305 million deal. Newly installed leaders of Qdoba have said they plan to remain based in San Diego as the company plots a nationwide growth strategy.

Longtime restaurant industry consultant Darren Tristano, now CEO of Chicago-based CHD Expert, said Chipotle’s relocation out of Denver appears to be a strategy designed to shake up the company culture, but it will also be moving away from many of the people who helped develop the brand into the nation’s 16th-largest restaurant chain.

“Considering they could move anywhere, it appears very convenient for the chain headquarters to move near the home of the new CEO,” Tristano said. “If you are a CEO, why move away from your home when you can just move the headquarters closer to you?”

“Seems like an unnecessary move for a brand that has been focusing on stabilization,” Tristano added, though he noted the company’s stated quest for worker talent is valid. “Newport Beach is one of the nicest places to live and work, and there are many restaurant executives that would be happy to move there to support the Mexican chain.”


Lou Hirsh, San Diego Market Reporter  CoStar Group   
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