Emerging Concepts | October 2010 | By Judy Kneiszel

Freebirds World Burrito

While Freebirds is quick service, each location has at least one and sometimes as many as three employees who work the dining room.

Freebirds World Burrito relies on a long list of ingredients and a modern atmosphere to bring customers through the door. Offering beer and wine just helps “eliminate the veto vote,” says the chain’s president, Bryan Lockwood.

“If a group of people is discussing where to eat, the veto vote is the one guy who says, ‘I don’t want to go there because I want a beer,’” he says. “Having wine and beer available eliminates that vote and puts us higher in the rotation. It’s an important part of our business, because it’s a differentiator.”

Lockwood says Freebirds does a strong lunch business, and offering alcoholic beverages increases its share of business after 4 p.m.

He says the beer selection at Freebirds is extensive for a fast-casual restaurant. Core offerings include Mexican brews and, because most of the units are in Texas, selections from the Lone Star and Shiner microbreweries. 

Although beer outsells wine seven to one, Freebirds offers both red and white wines as well as two flavors of wine-based margaritas, which Lockwood says are almost indistinguishable from traditional margaritas made with tequila.

“Systemwide, alcohol sales approach 6 percent of our business, which is not insignificant,” he says. He adds that Freebirds is trying to improve beverage sales with each new store. 

“In full-service restaurants, the first transaction is the beverage transaction, but not in quick service, and that didn’t seem right to us,” Lockwood says. “So we started positioning the beverage station where guests can access it while in line.” 

Lockwood says beverage sales increases have been in the double digits since repositioning the drinks. “We often have a wait, and we all know a wait goes better with cold beverage in hand,” he says.

Freebirds first opened in 1987 in Santa Barbara, California, and spread to College Station, Texas. It grew to 18 stores by 2007, when California-based Tavistock Restaurants LLC purchased it. 

By 2010, the chain had 35 units—33 in Texas, one in Oklahoma, and the original Santa Barbara location, which is operated by one of the founders through a special licensing agreement. Besides the Santa Barbara location, all stores are company-owned. Tavistock plans to keep it that way, answering franchising inquiries with a polite “thanks but no thanks.” 

Tavistock does plan to add between 20–40 locations, primarily in Texas and California. 

An average transaction at Freebirds is $9, but Lockwood says the chain’s association with Tavistock’s high-end restaurants like California Café and ZED451 increases the value.

Freebirds World Burrito

President: Bryan Lockwood

HQ: Austin, Texas

Year Started: 1987

Annual Sales: $75 million

Total Units: 35

Franchise Units: 0

www.freebirds.com

“Our high-end sister restaurants have great chefs and we’ve been able to use those culinary talents to ensure the techniques and ingredients at Freebirds meet some very high standards,” he says. “We have in-house, completely scratch kitchens. We do all of our recipes in house and start at 6 a.m. in order to open at 11 a.m.”

Freebirds customers walk down a 30-foot-long burrito-building line and can choose from four sizes of tortilla. Steak, chicken, and carnitas (smoked pork shoulder) are the primary protein choices. Fillings range from lettuce, guacamole, tomatoes, and beans to roasted garlic, roasted lime, and corn salsa. Prices are based on size, protein, and how many extras customers choose and range from $4.69 to $12.99.

“We have more than eight trillion possible combinations,” Lockwood says. “Everything is done to the customer’s specifications. Then we roll it in a way that is super tight.

“We teach customers to stand up the burrito and unravel the foil from the top. At most places you’d get two bites and everything would end up in the basket and you’d have to eat it with a knife and fork. That doesn’t happen with ours.”

The foil is reusable, too. “Twenty years ago, people began making art out of the foil,” Lockwood says. “There is some unusual art in every Freebirds because there are nooks and crannies built into the brick walls providing ledges to perch things on. We have foil art contests when we train staff, and our managers have to become art curators.” 

Freebirds units do not have drive thrus, but online ordering and payment helped develop a strong carryout business. 

“If you are a Freebirds fanatic who knows how you want to build your burrito, you can click your way through the process,” Lockwood says. “When you come to the restaurant you just grab your food at the cashier area and go. You don’t even have to get your money out.” 

While Freebirds is quick service, each location has at least one and sometimes as many as three employees who work the dining room, getting diners more chips, soda refills, or another beer.

Freebirds lets its staff wear whatever they want, so long as they include a hat, a Freebirds’ pin for identification, and an apron.

Although the look of the employees can sometimes be unconventional, Lockwood says it’s to the benefit of the brand. “Purple hair never killed anyone,” he says. “At Freebirds, we do what we do in a big way with some really cool people.”