By Linda Dailey Paulson

Thought NYC was Big Apple? One chain wants to convince you it’s actually BurritoVille.

Words to describe today’s permutations of Mexican food are rife with hyphens—particularly among chains seeking to distinguish themselves from the pack. But according to executives of BurritoVille, “fresh” is the only adjective that counts.

The Manhattan company was founded in 1992 by executives who had lived in California and New York and knew those markets well. “In California, tacqueria-style food is as prominent as places to get a slice of pizza are in New York,” says David LaPlante, founder and CEO. Knowing New Yorkers’ penchant for on-the-go food, the founders were convinced their concept would work. They also pulled from their experience during stints at Chevy’s Fresh Mex and California Burrito restaurants. In fact, California Burrito is one of BurritoVille’s closest competitors. COO Peter Daghlian is convinced BurritoVille is the thing to fill the void in the Manhattan market for freshly-prepared Mexican. “I am arrogantly confident,” he says, “that we have the best product in the nation.”

Why it bears watching

To paraphrase Sinatra: If BurritoVille can make it in New York—where consumers can choose from a dazzling array of foods—the chain can make it anywhere. Perhaps. Burritoville will also need to continue growing wisely and develop a franchising scheme that works, and that’s no easy task. The Zagat survey also notes the chain needs to up the appeal of its interiors. But with a solid AUV of $750,000, an enticing menu and beverage selection, and experienced leaders, BurritoVille might represent fresh Mex for the Northeast and beyond.

LaPlante says the partners knew they had to execute the menu properly in this tough market. BurritoVille’s first location is also its commissary, where foods are prepared fresh daily. The only in-store preparation is the cooking of tortillas. Foods are assembled on the spot with ingredients delivered each day. Checks average $7.25 at lunch for what Daghlian describes as “two pounds of food and 20 ounces of Coca-Cola beverage.” Food costs for September were 24 percent. The average unit volume for BurritoVille is $750,000.

Tim Zagat, co-publisher of the Zagat Survey, says New York survey respondents think BurritoVille provides a lot of food for the money. In fact thecurrent survey calls the fare “burritos as big as your head.”

Specials created by LaPlante change frequently, ranging recently from a Portuguese-style salt cod burrito to a concoction inspired by a fish fry at California’s Seal Beach that includes fried fish, Mexican cole slaw, and corn pico de gallo all wrapped in a tortilla. The chain is popular with vegans and vegetarians who enjoy tempeh and tofu dairy substitutes. Beverage choices are as unique as the entrees. To complement beverages offered by Coca-Cola, LaPlante devised several tea blends. The restaurant’s horchata, a refreshing rice drink typically found in tacquerias, is prepared from scratch each day.

The tough real-estate market has both hindered and helped BurritoVille’s growth. Because rents are so high, executives decided to keep rent factors under 9 percent. LaPlante says BurritoVille could easily open ten to fifteen more successful locations in Manhattan, but the partners are more concerned with growing wisely—they’re debt-free now and intend to stay that way. BurritoVille recently expanded into the larger Tri-State area: While most of the fifteen locations are on New York’s West Side below 95th Street, the chain recently opened locations in northern New Jersey and Danbury, Connecticut. BurritoVille is developing a franchise campaign to court experienced multi-unit operators who are able to support a territory. In addition to the freshness factor, operators can capitalize on delivery and catering operations.

This article originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of QSR. All rights reserved.

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