By Joel Warner
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It's 8:30 on a cold Thursday morning, and people are lined up outside the City and County Building, jockeying for position, eager to pass through the metal detectors just inside the door and escape the bitter weather. Marisela Aceve, a small, cheerful woman dressed in a white Lotto jacket and pink scarf, knowingly avoids the crowd. Tugging a large cooler on a collapsible luggage cart behind her, she makes her way to the back of the building, where only a few people wait in line. She waves, snags the attention of a security guard who ushers her past the metal detectors, and smiles as she moves to the elevators. On the fourth floor, at the sheriff department's office for Denver District Court, an officer greets her with a cry of recognition.
The room is transformed into a sea of dark blue as nearly a dozen officers flood the front desk, cash in hand, eager for their morning fix. A sheriff escorting two orange-jumpsuit-clad, handcuffed prisoners stops to buy a potato, egg and cheese burrito.
"She's like our crack dealer," he says, handing Marisela three dollar bills and then moving on toward the courtroom, his reluctant duo in tow.
Other prisoners waiting in the back holding cells crane their necks to see what all the fuss is about as, one by one, the officers approach Marisela, purchase their daily burrito -- burritos, in some cases -- and liberally apply the salsa verde in the red ketchup containers to their breakfast. They tease her about her new haircut, discuss the results of yesterday's lottery, inquire as to the outcome of her son's football games.
"I've been buying burritos off of Marisela for six years," says Deputy Sheriff Denny Maes. "It's great. She comes to our office -- it's really convenient. Before that, I was working out at County; you couldn't get burritos there. This is better."
Sales concluded, Marisela wheels her burritos back into the hallway, then onto the elevator and down to the mayor's office, on the third floor. Outside the entrance, she uses her cell phone to call a secretary inside to see if they need burritos. They do, so Marisela disappears behind a thick glass door, emerging several minutes later, several burritos lighter.
"I'm kind of scared of this new guy," she confesses. "I used to sell to Wellington Webb all the time -- chorizo, egg and potato. But I haven't sold to the new guy. He always seems so busy. I don't want to bother anybody or get in trouble."
In office buildings across the city, variations of this scene unfold every day. Marisela is one of eight vendors working for Carlos Lopez's Milagro Burritos Inc., one of the most successful companies in this highly competitive, very Denver business.
Burrito vendors are like Denver's 300 days of sunshine -- an amenity many notice yet take for granted. But no other city in the country gets such door-to-door service. Other cities in the Southwest with high Hispanic populations don't report coolers full of burritos making their way down office hallways. While burritos are making inroads as lunch-cart items in other cities, the mobile homemade-burrito enterprises seem entirely Denver's own.
And no one knows why.
"I've only sold burritos here," Carlos Lopez says.
Pete Meersman, head of the Colorado Restaurant Association, doesn't know why mobile burritos are such a big business in Denver, nor does Michael Krikorian of the Downtown Denver Partnership. "We have vendors on the 16th Street Mall," he says. "All I know is that they're tremendously popular, but I couldn't tell you why."
Ditto for John Imbergamo, restaurant-industry expert and one of the brains behind Eat Denver, a program promoting the city's cuisine. "We certainly have a penchant for Mexican food here, but so do Phoenix and Los Angeles," he comments. "I don't think there is any more of a stay-at-your-desk-and-eat-your-lunch mentality here, because people are so active and lunchtime business is doing so well. I really have no idea why burritos are so popular here."
Asking why burritos are so big in Denver is like asking why sunsets are orange and blue. Because God is a Broncos fan. And he knows we like burritos -- preferably delivered to our door.
Sixteen years ago, Carlos Lopez was holed up at home after injuring his back at a warehouse job. Unable to subsist on his meager workers' comp check, he decided to go into business for himself. So he and his wife began making burritos in the kitchen of their west Denver home. But rather than sell them outside of athletic events, as other burrito-preneurs were doing, Lopez decided right away to target offices.
"I was one of the first ones to actually go into buildings," he remembers. "I got chased and kicked out of a lot of places, because when I first started, it was like they had never had that before. They didn't know what to make of it."
Office workers in ties made Lopez feel like he didn't belong; security guards often forcefully removed him from the premises. The rejections got so bad that at one point, he was hesitant to even knock on doors. But Lopez persisted, and business slowly picked up. "I remember one time in particular encouraged me," he says. "I was getting ready to go up and knock at an office door, and then I thought, 'Nah, they're not going to buy anything.' So I turned around and started heading in the other direction. And then this man came out of that office and yelled, 'Hey! What do you got there?' I thought I was in trouble, so, kind of scared, I said, &'Uh, burritos.' Then he said, 'Well, we like burritos in here. Come on in!' From that point on, things turned around for me, because I realized the worst they could do was say no."