Food Issue - Atlanta, Tortillas, and the path to burrito world domination

A look at how Atlanta became a fast casual hot spot

Who would’ve guessed back in 1984 that a little burrito joint opening up on Ponce would play a part in launching the global burrito chain wars? Surely not Charlie Kerns. Kerns, the owner of said burrito joint, moved to Atlanta from California in 1983 and opened Tortillas to bring a taste of Mission-style burritos eastward: Order at the counter, take a seat, start countdown to tortilla-wrapped meat and bean nirvana. Kerns was a pioneer. Willy’s and Chipotle wouldn’t be dreamed up for another decade. Moe’s? Sixteen years later. After 19 years in business, Kerns shut down Tortillas in 2003, leaving behind a legion of fans. Tortillas has achieved near mythic status in the minds of many who once graced its grungy space. It even inspired a local religion professor to take up the burrito business.

When you bring up Tortillas to folks who lived in Atlanta in the ’80s and ’90s, their nostalgia for the restaurant is palpable. In large part, it’s because of the scene the place fostered. Half the up-and-coming bands in town seemed to work at Tortillas. The clientele was wildly diverse. Bob Hatcher, a former Tortillas worker and later a business partner to Kerns (who also helped open Eats and the Local), says it was “a great cross section of humanity.” Indie college kids and proto-hipsters were drawn in by the food, the low prices, the late hours. The vibe — a complete lack of pretension, a blatant disregard for looking polished or orderly — fit the crowd.

Matt Hinton, the aforementioned religion professor-turned-Bell Street Burritos owner, says, “In those days, there were only a handful of places that felt like ours, places that it seemed like everyone went to before a concert, after a concert. Everybody would go to Tortillas. And there was a decent chance the person serving you a burrito might be playing the concert that night. And of course there was the food. Tortillas was the holy grail of burritos.”

Atmosphere aside, Tortillas’ burritos hooked people good.

“It’s crazy — like no other restaurant I’ve ever heard of,” Hinton says. “On their last day the line was like a mile long, and this one guy said he bought 52 burritos so he could have one a week for the next year. That’s the level of commitment people had.”

So why did Tortillas close in 2003? A lot of it had to do with the competition Tortillas itself spawned, most significantly Moe’s, which set up shop a couple blocks away on Ponce. Today, Atlanta is a chain restaurant magnet. The city is home to at least 23 major food franchise headquarters — more than any other city in the U.S. as of February 2014. There are the big hometown names such as Chick-fil-A and Waffle House. Popeye’s moved here in the ’90s. Krystal recently moved its headquarters from Chattanooga to Dunwoody, and you may have some vague notion that Arby’s is based in Dunwoody. But Atlanta also serves as home base for a wide array of franchises held by Roark Capital and its Focus Brands subsidiary, which includes Moe’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, and Schlotzsky’s. Mellow Mushroom started here, and fast casual newcomers like Fresh to Order and Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint continue to use Atlanta as a springboard to broader success. Even Farm Burger and Flip have expanded beyond Georgia’s borders.

Any restaurant business insider will tell you fast casual is where it’s at if you want to grow. Fast casual establishments occupy the space above fast food and below casual restaurants; that nice cozy spot occupied by Taqueria del Sol, Fellini’s, and Bantam and Biddy. When you think fast casual burritos in Atlanta today, chances are it’s Willy’s or Moe’s that comes to mind. Raging Burrito & Taco fills the niche as Decatur’s resident burrito institution, although it’s technically not fast casual because of the table service. Tortillas was “fast casual” way before the industry lingo even existed.

Willy Bitter, founder of Willy’s Mexicana Grill, was a lot like Kerns. He arrived in Atlanta after a spell in California and had the idea of opening up a burrito joint that could rival what he experienced out west. Except when Bitter got here, he discovered that Tortillas had beaten him to it.

“It was 1995,” he says. “I had lived out in San Francisco, and when I got to Atlanta, I remember looking in the paper and going, oh crap, there’s already one Mission-style burrito place in Atlanta. So I stayed away from that Ponce area where Tortillas was on purpose. It was good food, guys working in bands and slinging burritos during the day. It was just a cool place.”

When Bitter opened the first Willy’s on Roswell Road in Buckhead, he had no aspirations for it to become a chain restaurant. Nor was he trying to help pioneer a fast casual movement. Like Tortillas, it was one shop trying to make the best burritos in Atlanta. Unlike Tortillas, Willy’s opened up a second shop three years later. Then a few more. And a few more. There are now 24 of them in metro Atlanta. Bitter says Atlanta has been a great city for Willy’s and other chains because the metropolitan area has experienced such explosive and diverse population growth over the past few decades.

If you’re Willy’s, life in and around Atlanta is good. For Bitter, careful growth has been the right path.

“We don’t have a set growth rate, we don’t have to grow,” he says, “but we do want to. A couple a year ideally if there are good locations to move into. But the competition is more intense than ever, so we’re always trying new things – like making fresh tortillas now in a few of our stores.” When asked what he hopes Willy’s legacy will be, he replied, “I just hope that 20 years from now they’re still saying we have the best burritos in town.”

In the late ’90s, Bitter was approached by Martin Sprock, the owner of a chain of smoothie shops called Planet Smoothie. Sprock was looking to aggressively grow a fast casual franchise and saw the potential in the Willy’s approach. But Bitter wasn’t interested. In 2000 Sprock introduced the world to Moe’s Southwest Grill, with one location, like the original Willy’s, in Buckhead. Moe’s expanded quickly, opening a shop a few blocks from Tortillas shortly before it shuttered. Moe’s now has more than 550 locations from Buckhead to Moscow. It’s aiming for 1,000 locations worldwide. Moe’s is a kind of Bizarro World Tortillas — polished, trademarked, and eager to take on the world. Just try to imagine Kern describing his burrito shop the way Moe’s CMO Paul Macaluso did in his September interview with Nation’s Restaurant News:

“Moe’s Southwest Grill is a fast-casual restaurant franchise featuring fresh, handmade, customizable Southwestern food in a welcoming environment that rocks. Moe’s is committed to serving only the highest quality ingredients 100 percent of the time. ... While Moe’s is best known for its burritos packed with a choice of more than 20 fresh, flavorful ingredients, the menu also features kids’, vegetarian and low-calorie options, all served with free chips and salsa.

At Moe’s, we dominate in what we refer to as our “irreverent welcome” and “feeding creativity” ... our ability to provide substantially more options for people to personalize their meal. We have nearly twice as many product platforms (including quesadillas, nachos and Stacks) than our largest competitor and over 20 fresh, high-quality ingredients for them to customize their masterpieces.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Bell Street Burritos, a tiny operation compared to the mega-chains of the world. Quoting obscure literary theories is not what one might expect from the proprietor of a burrito shop, but literary theories are exactly what Hinton offered when asked about his thoughts on Tortillas and its impact on Bell Street.

“Literary critic Harold Bloom had this idea of the anxiety of influence — the idea that once you realize how influenced you are by something, it creates anxiety and you want to branch off and do your own thing,” Hinton says. “We’ve found our own way for a lot of things, so it makes me a little uncomfortable when people think of us just as the second coming of Tortillas. I’ve tried not to push that angle, but it keeps following me. I have no problem recognizing their brilliance. But we’re not just Tortillas.”

Yes, Hinton was a Tortillas acolyte. And, yes, the genesis of Bell Street was Hinton’s attempt to recreate some long lost burrito brilliance. His idea started as a way to earn some money between courses as a religion professor at the Atlanta University Center. He started small — very small, making burrito deliveries once a week to friends. Word spread, demand grew, and eventually Hinton decided to set up shop officially as Bell Street Burritos inside Sweet Auburn Curb Market in 2010. He went on to open a freestanding location on Howell Mill Road that has since moved to Peachtree Street in South Buckhead. Still, he can’t escape the influence of Tortillas. And that’s not a bad thing. Have you tasted Bell Street’s burritos?

When it comes to growing Bell Street, Hinton has mixed feelings. He likes the intimacy of being small. But Hinton also admires what local chains like Willy’s or Fellini’s have done. They’ve built Atlanta-centric businesses and demonstrated good business sense along the way by owning their shops and properties.

“I don’t know how to answer about what my aspirations are without it seeming trite,” he says. “I want people to love Bell Street, and to be happy when they visit us, and to like the food. Lots of businesses say they want to form community, and of course that’s true, but it also seems a bit off. At the end of the day we’re just putting good stuff into tortillas.”

When Tortillas shuttered in 2003, Kerns told Creative Loafing, “The burrito war has been fought and won. We didn’t win it.”

Tortillas may have lost the battle when it closed, but it was the trailblazer that put Atlanta on the path to fast casual burrito glory. I’ll take a pork and green chile burrito please.

Food Events