How Wash­ing­to­ni­ans killed a per­fectly good bur­rito cart

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY ABHA BHATTARAI

Af­ter nearly two decades of sell­ing bur­ri­tos on Wash­ing­ton’s K Street, John Rider says his side­walk cart — which once brought in more than $300 an hour — has be­come un­sus­tain­able.

Busi­ness fell 70 per­cent in re­cent years at Pe­dro & Vinny’s, and the bur­rito that USA To­day once called “the best thing go­ing in D.C.’s food-cart scene,” went away for good on Fri­day.

It wasn’t for lack of try­ing, Rider, 59, says. He spent the past five years at­tempt­ing to re­susci- tate sales, first by adding chicken to his veg­e­tar­ian menu, then home-smoked car­ni­tas. About six months ago, he added tacos. Af­ter that, bar­be­cue pulled pork and coleslaw. Along the way, he raised the price of a bur­rito from $4 to $6.

But, he says, the long lines that once snaked around the cor­ner of 15th and K Streets NW didn’t come back.

And so, af­ter lunch on Fri­day, Rider packed up his cart and planned to drive seven hours to Cal­abash, N.C., where he has taken a job wait-

ing ta­bles at a restau­rant that sells seafood and pasta.

“I know Pe­dro & Vinny’s is a good con­cept, but there are way too many peo­ple open­ing restau­rants these days,” Rider said. “My wife and I have been try­ing to stay here — we re­ally don’t want to leave, we have fam­ily here — but then I start look­ing around, and if I’m hon­est with my­self, it’s like, this area doesn’t need an­other freakin’ food place.”

That pro­lif­er­a­tion of restau­rants and food trucks, as he sees it, is the main prob­lem. But there have been a num­ber of oth­ers, too.

For one, The Wash­ing­ton Post, which used to be on 15th Street, moved a few blocks away in late 2015, tak­ing with it dozens of his reg­u­lars and about one-third of his sales. A few other nearby build­ings are un­der­go­ing ren­o­va­tions, and the CVS on his cor­ner re­cently closed af­ter months of de­clin­ing sales.

At the same time, nearby food trucks are mul­ti­ply­ing, and chains such as Chipo­tle, Pot­belly Sand­wich Shop and Pret a Manger are tak­ing up res­i­dence in newly ren­o­vated down­town of­fices. As a re­sult, a num­ber of long­time eater­ies have closed: Juice Joint Cafe, af­ter 19 years. Cal­i­for­nia Grill, af­ter more than 25.

“It wasn’t just one dag­ger that killed me,” Rider said. “It was one af­ter an­other, af­ter an­other.”

Back in his hey­day, from about 2007 to 2011, Rider says his one­man cart might bring in $1,000 in an af­ter­noon. In 2007, Wash­ing­to­nian mag­a­zine re­ported that Rider — who is no­to­ri­ously tight-lipped about his fi­nances — made enough from his bur­rito cart to af­ford a va­ca­tion home “and then some.”

But lately, he’s had to take a job wait­ing ta­bles to pay rent on his house in Annandale, Va. In ad­di­tion to slow­ing sales, he re­cently re­ceived no­tice that the own­ers of the Pe­dro & Vinny’s restau­rant in Ar­ling­ton — who were pay­ing a weekly fee to use the com­pany’s name and its hot sauces — wanted to part ways. (The eatery is now called Bur­rito Bros.)

He also had to shut­ter the bur­rito cart his daugh­ter used to man­age at 12th and F Streets NW. Sales were never great there, he says, and it didn’t make sense to keep go­ing.

“I feel like I’m do­ing my daugh­ter an in­jus­tice hav­ing her do what we do,” he said. “I just said, ‘I’m not go­ing to re­open you.’ She was mad at me, but I think in the long run, when she gets a ca­reer un­der her feet, she’ll be okay.”

“The past few years,” he said, “have been de­bil­i­tat­ing.”

‘He’s my meal plan’

On Wed­nes­day, as news of his im­pend­ing de­par­ture spread, more than two dozen long­timers had lined up by noon.

“He’s my meal plan,” said Jesse Wit­ten, 51, a lawyer who’s been com­ing for eight years.

“This guy’s fed me more than any­body, ex­cept maybe my mother,” said Jor­dan Ber­man, 34, a reg­u­lar since 2005.

Be­hind him was Mau­reen Hard­wick, who’s bought at least one bur­rito a week at that spot for years.

“It’s heart­break­ing. I’m in denial,” said Hard­wick, a lawyer whose of­fices are di­rectly in front of Rider’s cart. She found out he was leav­ing re­cently when a tearyeyed col­league told her the news.

An email from a col­league, with the sub­ject line “One more week to get a bur­rito,” was what alerted Ali, a 38-year-old lawyer who de­clined to give his last name. He was wait­ing for his fourth bur­rito in as many weekdays

When it was time to pick up his daily chicken bur­rito, he told Rider: “Sorry man, we’re sad you’re leav­ing.”

“I’m more sad than you are,” Rider replied.

Among his reg­u­lars, Rider is known as much for his play­ful ban­ter as he is for his over­stuffed bur­ri­tos and Goose Sauce, a mango ha­banero salsa that he stores in Grey Goose vodka bot­tles.

“I try to make their bur­rito into some­thing that’s al­most alive,” he told ra­dio sta­tion WTOP in 2013. “It’s so much bet­ter than if some­one just gave it to you with­out say­ing any­thing.”

Among his fa­vorite catch­phrases: “This is the best bur­rito I’ve made all day.” “You can take the rest of the day off.” “Don’t take that back to the of­fice, they’ll be jeal­ous.”

Over the years, he and his cus­tomers de­vel­oped a certain fa­mil­iar lingo, too. A “black and tan,” for ex­am­ple, was a bur­rito with black and pinto beans. He asked each customer how hot they’d like their bur­ri­tos, on a scale from 1 to 10, “fruity or non-fruity.” And then there was the cash box: Rider re­lied on an honor sys­tem. Cus­tomers put in how­ever much they owed and made their own change.

All of those lit­tle things added up to a loyal fol­low­ing. There were peo­ple who ate Rider’s bur­ri­tos ev­ery day. But af­ter the peo­ple stopped com­ing, it was dif­fi­cult to stay up­beat.

“When it’s slow and there are one or two peo­ple in line, I can feel my brain go­ing numb,” said Rider, who used to be the head chef at the Key Bridge Mar­riott’s rooftop restau­rant. “It’s mis­er­able.”

‘In­cred­i­ble years’

The last time Rider — who started his bur­rito cart in 2002 — packed up and moved down south, busi­ness was boom­ing. It was late 2007, and he had to move to North Carolina for fam­ily rea­sons.

Rider started anew. He bought a small restau­rant near his house, named it Pe­dro & Vinny’s and started sell­ing bur­ri­tos, tacos, que­sadil­las and five types of pasta.

“It failed al­most im­me­di­ately,” he said, adding that re­tirees weren’t in­ter­ested in bur­ri­tos. “I was in­cred­i­bly cocky when I went down there. I left here at the top of my game, think­ing I could do no wrong. But any­body can do wrong in this busi­ness.”

Within six months, he closed the restau­rant at a loss and re­turned to his bur­rito cart in Wash­ing­ton. The crowds, and the money, fol­lowed.

“I crawled back here and had three or four more in­cred­i­ble years,” he said. “You make mis­takes in life, and you try to learn from them. But it’s not 2008 any­more. It’s not go­ing to hap­pen again.”

He has got­ten ready to say good­bye. In Septem­ber, he’ll re­new his two side­walk li­censes — which the District has stopped is­su­ing to new ven­dors — for $600 apiece and give them to other ven­dors. One is plan­ning to sell tacos on K Street.

“I fig­ure, why end these spots if some­one else wants to try their hand as an en­tre­pre­neur?” Rider said.

Rider says he’s not sure what he’ll do next. Maybe, he says, he’ll start a lawn-mow­ing ser­vice in North Carolina. Maybe he’ll call up Cisco, where he worked as a sales­man two decades ago, to ask for his job back.

Even though he has no plans to re­vive his food cart, he’s driv­ing it down and leav­ing it in stor­age just in case.

“Hon­estly, I’m burnt out,” he said. “Wai­ter­ing four or five nights a week, to me, sounds like a va­ca­tion.”

The irony, he says, was that his last week was good. Long­time reg­u­lars re­turned to say their good­byes. The lines were so long that he couldn’t see to the end — “some of those old-time lines,” he said.

“Peo­ple are com­ing by and say­ing, ‘Oh no, I wish you’d stay. Are you sure you’re not go­ing to change your mind?’ ” he said. “I feel like say­ing, ‘When’s the last time I saw you? A year ago?’ I don’t say that, but it’s the truth.”

“Things change,” he said. “Peo­ple’s habits change, and it all adds up.”

ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

John Rider sells his bur­ri­tos at K and 15th Streets NW in the District ear­lier this month.

ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Cus­tomers wait for their lunch, pre­pared by John Rider, who sold his bur­ri­tos in down­town Wash­ing­ton for about 15 years.

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