Employees who showed up for work at the Geo Burrito restaurants in Nederland and Beaumont on June 16 found the bulletin board where their schedules were normally displayed empty. A short time later, they learned that Geo Burrito would close its doors for good that night because the stores had been sold – and they were out of a job.
Geo Burrito was founded here in 2009 by owner Dave Jones, who also created the Novrozsky’s chain of burger joints in Southeast Texas. Jones reached an agreement with Tavistock Restaurants in Emeryville, Calif., owners of a number of high-end restaurant properties – and of the Freebirds World Burrito chain that occupies a large niche in the industry called “fast casual,” offering both quick service and a higher quality of food than typical fast-food restaurants.
The two Geo Burrito restaurants in the deal will be quickly converted into Freebirds outlets with hopes to have the new stores open within two weeks.
In an interview, Jones attributed his decision to sell to “economics” and said, “They’re the big boys out there as far as the burrito business, and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I didn’t sell the name ‘Geo Burrito’ – I sold them my locations. I do have a limited non-compete agreement where I can’t open one around one of these two units.”
Although Jones had reportedly been eyeing expanding Geo Burrito to other cities including Dallas, he decided to let Freebirds purchase the locations here.
“I know they are going to take a piece of the market,” he commented. “My view was they were going to show up here eventually, so might as well take it and roll – at least for these two stores.”
Jones told the Business Journal he was eyeing other food concepts for this area and beyond.
As for those shell-shocked employees who showed up for work last week and discovered they were out of work, Jones offered some assurances.
“Basically I don’t think there will be any” impact on Geo Burrito staff, he insisted. “They’re good people and they said ‘we’ll pretty much hire anybody you got’ – and a lot of these people I’m moving over to Novrozsky’s. We need to hire help because we haven’t hired any help in a while.”
A little research on the Freebirds World Burrito chain – there are currently 13 of them in the Houston area – indicates this not your usual burrito joint.
Described as the creation of two ex-hippies named Mark Orfalea and Pierre Dube, the first Freebirds World Burrito opened in 1987 in a beachfront community that was also a college town.
“They were two guys hanging out here and took up a location across the street from University of California at Santa Barbara,” said Jeff Carl, chief marketing officer for Tavistock Restaurants. When Dube wanted to expand their brand, he moved to College Station, Texas, while Orflea was content to stay in California.
“Mark is still rolling burritos in the original Freebirds in California, which he operates under an agreement with us,” said Carl. Tavistock Restaurants acquired the Freebirds chain in 2007 and it has grown to 50 restaurants, all owned and operated by the company, although franchising is scheduled to begin later this year.
But what exactly is the Freebirds style? “It’s a burrito joint that found its rock ‘n’ roll roots back in the ’60s and ’70s – it actually didn’t really get started until 1987,” said Carl who mentioned some other distinguishing characteristics.
“Not too many places sell ‘pot brownies’ – of course, we do that with a little wink and a nod and put brownies in a black pot,” he said. “And not many people hang motorcycles with the Statue of Liberty riding it holding a burrito, that’s true.”
Extreme décor is not the only source of the sensory overload ambience. The place is loud.
“It’s not for everybody,” said Carl. “We rock out pretty heavily; the music’s turned up to nine and a half. The place absolutely rocks in many ways.”
With an imaginative menu offering a modified Tex-Mex-via-California cuisine prepared fresh from quality ingredients, the formula has yielded benefits.
“We have a great demographic split – we have a lot of young men, as you might guess, but it’s as likely on any given opening day that the first person in the door is a mom with a couple of kids,” observed Carl.
The success of Freebirds World Burrito is all the more remarkable when you consider just how competitive the super burrito field really is.
The largest player is Chipotle Mexican Grill, founded by Steve Ells in 1993 and based in Denver, Colo. The company currently has more than 1,000 locations, with restaurants in 38 states, Washington, D.C., Toronto and London. Much of that growth occurred between 1998 and 2006 when its majority owner was McDonald’s Corporation.
Another burrito giant is Qdoba Mexican Grill, founded in Denver in 1995 by Anthony Miller and partner Robert Hauser. Acquired by the San Diego-based Jack in the Box company in 2004, Qdoba now operates more than 700 locations throughout the U.S. though most Texas stores are concentrated in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Moe’s Southwestern Burritos, another super burrito player whose fast casual Tex-Mex restaurants were originally decorated with large paintings of dead rock stars, was founded in Atlanta in 2000. It had grown to 360 locations by the time it was acquired in 2007 by Focus Brands, an affiliate of the Atlanta-based private equity firm, Roark Capital Group, that owns the Schlotzsky’s, Carvel and Cinnabon brands.
Make no mistake, Tavistock Restaurants harbors ambitions for Freebirds World Burrito to breathe the same rarified air as these top players, as Jeff Carl makes clear.
“All are stores are company owned now, but we’re getting ready to go into franchising this year,” he said. “We’re registered in 42 states with our franchise disclosure documents.”
Meanwhile, Freebirds World Burrito has taken its next small step with the acquisition of the Geo Burrito stores here. Stay tuned.