In Mikey Wetzel’s calculation, the fast casual burrito frontier might be a competitive and crowded place, but it is far from cramped.
And when he says calculate, he isn’t overstating. Wetzel didn’t dream up his restaurant as much as he programmed it. Since 2013, the former video-game developer has been refining and polishing Go Burrito in Salisbury, North Carolina, the home of legendary soft drink Cheerwine, with his sights set on the future. In that time, while Wetzel says he hasn’t reinvented the wheel, he does think he’s fostered a concept capable of sharing the table with the Moe’s, Chipotles, and Qdobas of the world.
“If they can succeed, why can’t I succeed?” Wetzel says. “I can repeat this process. And coming from a corporate world, I’m not intimidated by a big entity like Chipotle. They started out with Steve Ells, right? He started out with one store, did well, and then opened another. At the end of the day, they’re just guys that make decisions just like me.”
Recently, Wetzel announced he was franchising Go Burrito. This decision wasn’t arrived at without some serious number crunching. In 2015, he says the brand’s lone unit reported sales in excess of $1.4 million and is tracking for $1.6 million this year. If so, it would place Go Burrito in the top 15 of the QSR 50 alongside Wendy’s and Jack in the Box for average sales per unit. Although, of course, those brands are sustaining financials across thousands (5,090 for Wendy’s and 1,836 for Jack in the box) of franchised stores.
Wetzel doesn’t see why Go Burrito can’t repeat its success “in every town across America.” Of that $1.4 million, Wetzel says Go Burrito recorded net profit around $300,000. That number, upon further research, gave Wetzel even more optimism for the future.
“I read that the average McDonald’s franchisee profits around $157,000,” he says. “I told my wife, ‘Wow, can you believe that we were that successful? That we make almost twice that.’ You would have to own two McDonald’s. It’s amazing.”
Wetzel is also quick to point out that he’s accomplished this in Salisbury (population around 35,000), which isn’t going to be confused with Charlotte or Raleigh anytime soon.
All along, Wetzel has taken a pragmatic approach. He wrote computer code for 16 years, working on such mega-hits as Halo, Grand Theft Auto, and Gears of War. “That’s just kind of an insight into how my brain works. Whatever you think of when you think of a computer programmer, that’s me,” he says. “It’s OK to think of me as a nerd who is very comfortable on a computer. I’m a number cruncher.”
Wetzel did his homework before diving in. “I wasn’t going to abandon a high-paying job for something that was a death sentence,” he says, adding that research pointed him to quick service.
According to TDn2K, a company that measures data based on weekly sales from nearly 26,000 restaurant units and 130-plus brands, the quick-service segment was the industry’s best performing for the eighth consecutive month in October.
This also lined up with the fact that Wetzel had no plans to work in the kitchen and possessed zero restaurant experience. He began observing the big players in burritos to further his research, recording labor usage, portion size, equipment cost, and other metrics. Then, he started punching numbers. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is a real business that makes money,’” he says.
Wetzel didn’t spend any time prepping food or cooking. Instead, he worked behind the scenes, diverting his attention to hiring and tracking daily vitals. The business did $1.2 million in sales its first year. They sold more than 100,000 burritos the next.
But Go Burrito’s success has been a little more complicated than just rolled-up moneymakers. This past year, Wetzel says the local newspaper awarded his concept five “best of” awards. His restaurant has embraced its role as a lifestyle brand, and the profits reflect that.
Upstairs, there’s a full bar that stays open until 2 a.m. While it only accounts for around 15 percent of sales, it allows Wetzel to market to literally every customer in the city. In addition to food specials, Go Burrito can promote craft beer, trivia, karaoke, and live music.
“I’m convinced that’s part of the reason why my location has the reputation it has and the profitability that it has,” he says. “… We want to be that hangout spot. We want people to say, ‘This is our favorite restaurant,' not just, 'This is our favorite food,' but, 'This is our favorite place to go.'”
Go Burrito separates itself with California-style burritos and a beach-themed, laid-back atmosphere. They use fresh ingredients and make their salsa in-house. In addition, Go Burrito "fluffs" its burritos, which ensures that the ingredients are evenly spread throughout. And lastly, they toast the burritos on a Panini grill before serving.
As for the franchise model, Wetzel never wavered. He knows he can go and open company units and collect larger chunks of profit, but that it would be a slow and risky process.
“If there’s any struggle and one store fails, it’s going to go like dominoes and knock the other ones down,” he says.
Wetzel says he likes the idea of building a team full of passionate franchisees who run their own units. Like many brands, he says recipes and policy will be standardized to achieve consistency. He will, however, give operators freedom on “Fish Taco Tuesdays” and with customized murals inside their restaurants, as well as the ability to interact with their local communities on their own personal terms. The bar won’t be required, although it will be strongly recommended, he adds.
Wetzel currently projects around 10 concepts a year being added to the system. That number can then jump to 20, 40, and so on as things progress.
“I have no delusions about thinking this is going to be bigger than Chipotle, but I have no reason to think this concept wouldn’t repeat,” he says. “There are some really great brands out there. I don’t aim to outdo them but I aim to give people choices.”
By Danny Klein