Shawn and Meggan Bucher opened ABQ Burrito on November 16. The same day that the 2 week lockdown in New Mexico started.
“Obviously you can’t see the future, but I don’t know if we could have picked a worse time to open a new business,” said Shawn.
The story of ABQ Burrito starts back in January, before the lockdowns and quarantine started. Shawn had been traveling 200+ days a year as a food service consultant and was ready to be home more with Meggan and their 3 young children. He took a job with an organization in Nevada with a two year time commitment. “Our goal was simple, I would take this job, save our money, keep our home in Rio Rancho and we would begin building ABQ Burrito on the side. That way when our two years was up, we would be ready to open in Albuquerque.”
But just a few months into the new opportunity, the company, like many others, ran into financial woes with COVID and Shawn was laid off.
“I had never been laid off before. It was uncharted territory and I didn’t really know what to do with myself,” recalls Shawn. “You go through all kinds of emotions and self-reflection when something like this happens. We ultimately decided that it was time to just move forward and make ABQ Burrito happen.”
“We had about 6 months’ worth of living expenses saved, and with Shawn not working a full-time job we had time now to really focus on building the restaurant,” says Meggan. “We had talked about it for years, but never had the time or resources to do it until now… We couldn’t foresee the future of the pandemic but we felt confident about moving forward. Maybe if we knew then what we know now, we would have made different decisions.”
But the Bucher’s did move forward with faith that things would somehow work out. Taking out a signature loan, securing money from investors, setting up vendor relationships and recipe testing.
Shawn recalls, “Things seemed to be coming together for us all along the way in a somewhat miraculous fashion. We had people helping us and doors being opened that we never could have imagined.”
One of these miracles happened with the finding and securing of the restaurant location.
“We had struggled to secure a location and had looked at a lot, even been close to signing a deal on a few, but they all just fell apart. Then I just had this feeling that I needed to go to Albuquerque Restaurant Equipment one day.” Shawn remembers walking in and talking to Jack, the owner. “He asked if I had a restaurant and I told him I was looking for a location. He handed me a flier on the property we are in now and I immediately went there.”
Shawn met with the landlords and within 48 hours had the keys to the building.
“It was a surreal feeling, it just felt different from the other locations we had looked at. It felt like this was where we were supposed to be,” says Meggan.
The building, located at 2930 Candelaria Rd NE, has been home to many successful restaurants over the years. Both Milly’s, and Mick’s Chile Fix have occupied the space (both are still in the area on Candelaria as well).
Although it has been a restaurant in the past, it needed a lot of work and a total overhaul of the kitchen area. “There was about 4 layers of flooring that had to come up and be replaced…And there was no walk-in cooler. Those were two things that we decided needed to be done,” says Shawn. “We really wanted to set the restaurant up from the beginning for lasting success. Which means I was there for 10-12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week for a couple months putting in our own sweat equity to get it ready because we didn’t have the money to pay a contractor.”
The walk-in cooler and flooring alone cost over $30,000. In addition to overhauling much of the electrical work and plumbing, the Bucher’s spent over $65,000 in the kitchen area bringing things up to a level they felt was acceptable for the brand and future health inspections. “We didn’t want to do anything that we would need to replace later. We decided to do it right from the start,” says Meggan.
Then there was the seating area and patio. The seating area has been completely transformed into a modern, fresh aesthetic that stays true to New Mexican roots with dry-wall fashioned into painted adobe brick and a giant photo mural of the city during the iconic Balloon Fiesta captured by the local photographer Brandon Morgan while flying in a balloon. Plus the addition of shiny new tables finished in a beautiful cedar stain handcrafted by Shawn himself.
The patio area had been put in years before, but never really utilized. So Shawn built picnic tables to fill the area and create a comfortable space outside. “I worked on building and finishing tables for the better part of 3 months, it was an exhausting process.”
“We really wanted to do something that was good for the neighborhood. That’s why we decided to focus on take-out and drive thru options because so many people are in a hurry for breakfast and lunch,” said Shawn. “Burritos and burrito bowls, good local Pinon coffee and a signature churro doughnut are really what we focus on and do well.”
Although the menu is rounded out with salads, kids and vegetarian options, the primary focus is the tagline of the concept: fast, fresh, New Mexican.
“I grew up here and when Shawn and I moved here, we wanted to do something that was traditional-because that’s what New Mexican’s like, but different,” says Meggan. “We wanted to do for New Mexican cuisine what brands like Chipotle did for Mexican food and Chik Fil A did for fried chicken. We wanted to make quality, convenient food that wasn’t just what everyone else was serving.”
To make the food unique, they use a blend of roasted green chile to get the right amount of roasted flavor with that signature spice. They use what they call “Christmas Queso” (a blend of traditional queso with both red and green chile) in their burritos and bowls instead of traditional shredded cheese and they use a crispy air-fried tater tot as opposed to traditional hash browns or home fries that other concepts use.
“We cook our Carne Adovada overnight in a blend of spices and orange juice to get a really nice texture and flavor, then we finish it with our Red Chile sauce,” says Shawn. “It’s been a big hit and one of our biggest sellers.”
The salsas are also traditional, but slightly different. “We use our roasted green chile as the heat element in our salsas versus traditional jalapenos or serrano peppers. It gives it a nice unique flavor,” says Shawn. “Our scorpion salsa utilizes a blend of pineapple and guava along with vinegar to really make for a flavorful sauce…It’s hot, but very flavorful. It doesn’t just rely on the heat.”
“Getting started in the middle of a pandemic is obviously not what we wanted to do, but we really had no other choice,” says Shawn. “When I was laid off I applied for over 50 jobs and got little to no response.”
Being an industry veteran with over 25 years’ experience, Shawn knew the challenges of starting a restaurant, especially during a pandemic. “I have been a part of opening probably close to 100 different restaurant food service outlets. I knew we would need about 6 months’ worth of time to really get the concept up and going and profitable before we could take a paycheck.”
But after being laid off, and the months it took to find the location, the Buchers are coming close to the end of their savings, retirement and cash reserves.
With little to no gatherings most catering and dining options being limited, the ways in which restaurants have traditionally built sales has been challenged. While many are transitioning operations to more take-out focused, the smaller margins associated with third party delivery services and sales down across every segment, hospitality has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic.
Especially small businesses and those that have started during the pandemic.
“We have literally put everything we have into this. We know that things will work out, we just don’t know how or when. But we will continue to do all that we can until we spend our last dollar.”