Word of Mouth
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."
As Lopez lugged burritos from building to building, he quickly learned the tricks of his new trade. It's not "soliciting," for example, if you have a peddler's permit and a company asks you to come. A few unsolicited forays into this office here, that office there yielded a gaggle of reliable customers whom Lopez could truthfully say he was servicing. Today Lopez's vendors don't bother knocking on doors; they merely call an office representative to make sure they want burritos. Marisela has dozens of customers who call her or make other arrangements. On the first floor of the City and County Building, a clerk simply tapes a piece of paper to the door reading "yes" or "no" to indicate whether the people inside want burritos that day. Ninety percent of the time, Marisela estimates, it's yes.
Lopez worked out of his house for the first four years, as word of mouth slowly started to work its magic. The money was good, but Lopez, a born-again Christian who moved to Denver from Juarez when he was five and attended West High School, didn't feel right working under the table -- "robbing the government," as he puts it. He was also rapidly outgrowing his meager kitchen space, and rumors of a vendor crackdown were circulating.
People in the offices he sold burritos to encouraged him to seek a government loan, assuring him that it would be easy for him, a minority trying to start a small business, to obtain the necessary start-up funds. But it wasn't easy. Lopez's loan requests were rejected time and time again, and he began to consider another line of work. But friends in high places were looking out for him, and a customer in the attorney general's office -- former AG Ken Salazar likes Lopez's chicharrón burrito, FYI -- put him in touch with a private, small-business finance group willing to front him the money so that he could rent his own kitchen.
Lopez snagged an early-morning, $300-a-month lease on a space used by the Ambrosia Catering Company. It was a satisfactory setup, but Lopez longed for a place all his own. And while he was working in Ambrosia's kitchen one morning, he had what he calls "a vision." No angels or trumpets heralded the moment; the face of Jesus did not appear on a potato, chile, cheese burrito. But suddenly Lopez saw quite clearly that the kitchen was his and his alone.
A few days later, Ambrosia vacated its spot. The building's owner told Lopez that he'd continue to rent him the space for $300 a month, but the second a better offer came along, he was out of luck. Inspired by his vision, Lopez worked with his accountant sister-in-law to draw up a meager financial plan, and he took it to the building's owner a week later and made his plea.
"He looked at it," Lopez remembers, "and said, 'Carlos, I don't know why I'm going to give you the kitchen. I've gotten much better offers than yours. But you know what? I'm going to give you this opportunity.'"
Lopez christened his business Milagro, after the Spanish word for "miracle."
These days, Milagro Burritos Inc. occupies a building on Cherokee Street, which Lopez owns. The bulk of the space is dominated by a large kitchen with central stainless-steel prep tables and enormous stoves, refrigerators, freezers and sinks. Here the prep staff -- mostly full-time employees -- prepares all of Milagro's products, arriving at 3 a.m. to make the roughly 900 burritos the company sells each day. Sometimes they come even earlier, to prepare for the occasional catering job. The place is filled with scrambled eggs, bacon, peppers, tomatoes, shredded Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese, with stacks of tortillas piled to the ceiling.
"I've been working for Milagro for almost nine years," says Anna Hernandez. "I love it. You get off early enough to enjoy the day."
Vendors work part-time on commission, with most keeping 17 percent of what they sell. Marisela has worked her way up to 19 percent, but that's still not enough to live on. By the most generous of calculations, vendors take home about $350 a week; most couple their burrito money with additional jobs or a spouse's salary.
Lopez's long-term goal for Milagro is to graduate to a wholesale business, selling his product in far greater quantities. He already has a meeting scheduled with the food-services department at Invesco Field at Mile High to discuss outfitting the stadium with burritos and tamales for the next sports season. After a thorough facility inspection, Milagro recently received U.S. Department of Agriculture approval to sell products with meat ingredients, and Lopez will soon begin marketing his burritos, tamales and signature chile and salsa verde to small neighborhood markets. After that, he hopes for larger contracts with supermarkets across the West. Individual vendors could still buy a day's supply of burritos from Milagro, but that's where the company's involvement would end. Milagro would no longer sell burritos office to office.
The transformation from selling fresh-made burritos to selling them wholesale would inevitably mean a decline in overall quality and freshness -- Milagro qualities that now win big points with anyone who consumes the burritos consistently -- but Lopez is willing to take the risk. "I think people like these burritos so much because it's fast," he says. "Even if there is a slight decline in freshness, I think people will still buy them. When we started out, everything was coming out fresh. As it stands now, we're already using frozen potatoes, the bacon is already cooked. I wish I could do everything fresh as could be, but for me to get all the materials fresh, then try to cook everything fast enough to satisfy the demand for burritos is impossible."
Although he's had requests for vendors to service other businesses and recently branched out to the Tech Center, Lopez says it doesn't make sense to simply hire more workers and continue to sell his product the same way. Good vendors are hard to come by, and besides, why peddle burritos by the hundreds when the opportunity to sell them by the thousands, maybe even by the hundreds of thousands, is right there in front of you? It's the classic fallout from the American dream: Mom and Pop can stay afloat with their small-scale operation pushing that homemade product that everybody loves, but Mom and Pop are dreamers, after all, and when that golden ring is dangled in front of them, you can't fault them for reaching for it.
Office workers need not fear losing their daily fix, however. When Lopez gives up his door-to-door burrito businesses, there will be a slew of eager upstarts ready to fill the gap. Already out there are what he refers to as "undercutters," burrito peddlers who try to usurp Milagro's business by claiming they work for Milagro or getting to offices just minutes before Milagro gets there. And outside of Milagro's realm, dozens of independent peddlers sell burritos to offices all over metro Denver. Some have the proper permits to do so, some do not.
"It's like the burrito wars," says Sandra, who's been selling her homemade burritos for eighteen years now. "Some people form relationships with the businesses they sell to, some people just storm the building." She's planning to take a two-week vacation soon, and worries that other vendors may try to bite into her business while she's gone. "There's always someone waiting in the wings," she says.
Don Ramon's Burritos sits at the back of a Thornton strip mall, behind a loud, rowdy bar called Shotz. At 11:30 p.m., the parking lot is full of cars, with more arriving every minute, and the blaring music coming from the bar is audible from the street. Inside Don Ramon's, a small space consisting of two hallway-like kitchens, the thumping noise reverberates off the pots, pans, large Tupperware containers and walls.
Karen and Lee Stewart unload materials from a car into their business, walking expertly through the narrow space. Their son, Bo, a hardworking, quiet man with a goatee and the hot steam of the stove visible on his face, stirs two pots of boiling beans. At the front of the kitchen is a small desk with various health permits stapled above it; a nearby crib, an emergency bed for Bo's baby girl, bears testament to the long, non-negotiable hours that this family puts into Don Ramon's.
The room smells of hot hash browns, strong coffee and cigarettes.
"It used to be even smaller," Lee says. "We bought that second half over there when the gun shop left."
The gun shop that used to occupy the space between Don Ramon's and Shotz was the shoddy, occasional business where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold purchased some of the weapons they eventually used at Columbine. In the wake of that tragedy, reporters flooded the gun shop, demanding answers from the reticent owner. Don Ramon's sold burritos to the media.
"That was good business," Lee recalls.
Don Ramon's has enjoyed plenty of good business lately. Last year it racked up net sales of around $325,000 -- with no advertising. Karen, who owns the business with her father, Ramon, lives in the largest house of the eight siblings. She and Lee recently purchased a new Road King 1500 motorcycle that they joyride on their extremely rare days off.
"It's because of the name," Lee say. "People around here know that name and respect it."
Karen's father is responsible for that. In 1969, Ramon Roybal -- Ray to his friends -- opened a Mexican restaurant called Ramon's with his wife in Thornton. When it came time to turn over the popular business to their eight children, all eight passed -- including Karen, who'd worked in the kitchen for years but wasn't sure she could run the place herself. Ramon's folded. Karen moved with Lee back to his home in Tennessee. When they returned for a visit, Karen was stunned to see her parents' kitchen overflowing with tortillas and her mother turning out several hundred burritos a day.
"People were calling them and requesting Ramon's burritos, chile, salsa, and wanting them delivered," Karen says. "It was obvious there was a real demand for what they had, but they needed help."
Karen and Lee moved back to town, and she helped her parents peddle burritos out of their kitchen until they reopened the restaurant, now called Don Ramon's, at 72nd and Federal Boulevard. Business was okay, but Don Ramon's was moving more product in bulk out of the kitchen than to the customers seated at the tables in front. So they abandoned the restaurant idea and purchased the small space Don Ramon's now occupies, concentrating solely on burritos. They sold them anywhere people would buy them: in office buildings, at hospitals, outside Mile High Stadium. Lee recalls days when he'd pull in $700 in four hours. Ramon once sold two burritos to Neil Bush in an elevator for $12.
"He figured he took enough from savings and loans to afford it," Karen says, laughing.
But the opportunity to go wholesale was right in front of them, and they took it, acquiring the necessary wholesaler's license and hiring on their children, nieces and nephews to facilitate increased production.
At Don Ramon's, wholesale does not mean frozen. The burritos are made fresh every night and shipped out the next day, housed in warmers from birth to consumption. Don Ramon's supplies burritos to convenience stores, Northglenn and Horizon High Schools, Westwood College, Shell gas stations in Thornton and Northglenn, area churches, and Kaiser Permanente lunch carts, as well as five peddlers, who hawk Don Ramon's burritos all over the state. On an average night, the company makes around 2,000 burritos -- twice Milagro's output. On a non-average night, like the one when Northglenn High ordered 2,000 burritos to hand out to students during standardized testing, the hours can be long and grueling.
Five nights a week, Bo arrives at 9 p.m. to start his graveyard shift, which usually winds down by 6 a.m. Bo is responsible for nearly all of the cooking. He scrambles hundreds of eggs, fries up pounds of sizzling hash browns on an enormous stovetop; he boils the pinto beans in two giant drums, expertly chops and cooks whatever meat will be served in the burritos that day -- normally pork or beef, always bacon -- and in his spare time monitors the slow-roasting tomatoes in a small roaster oven in the front of the room. It's a huge amount of work to get everything going, but once the burrito ingredients are cooking, they pretty much take care of themselves. A few flips of the spatula here, a few stirs of the spoon there, and everything falls into place. Lee shows up around 11 p.m. to help with the cooking and immediately heads for the roaster oven. He always prepares Don Ramon's signature chile, which many customers mistakenly refer to as "salsa" because of its tomato base.
"It's our chile that's completely different from anything else," Lee says proudly.
At 2 a.m. Bo's two sisters show up, along with another hired hand or two, and for the next four or five hours the crew works in assembly-line fashion, preparing the burritos and warding off the drunks who stumble over from Shotz, drawn by the smell of fresh cooking. With machine-like efficiency, the ingredients are spooned into tortillas that are then carefully folded, expertly wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in the warmers, where they will remain for the rest of their journey. When Don Ramon's has bigger orders, it brings in more workers, and both kitchens move at breakneck speed.
"In those situations, you pause for five minutes and all your numbers get screwed up," Karen explains. "It's incredibly hard work."
Once the burritos are loaded, everyone takes off except Lee, who waits for the vendors and delivery trucks to pick up their supplies.
As with Milagro, Don Ramon's customers are extremely loyal. Lee and Karen tell of a New Jersey trucker who purchases five or six dozen burritos every time he comes through town, freezes them and takes them back home. Over his CB, that same trucker broadcasts the message that drivers should eat Don Ramon's burritos when in Colorado. There's also a group of hunters who take only Don Ramon's burritos out on a hunt, wrapping them in tin foil and throwing them in the fire to warm them. Unlike Lopez, however, Don Ramon's owners seem in no hurry to capitalize on that loyalty. Over the years, they've rejected numerous offers from individuals and businesses wanting to buy them out, share their name or merely market them for a percentage of the sales.
"We can make this as big as we want it to be," Lee says. "We could probably double the size of our business in a year if we put our minds to it. But the bigger you get, the more problems come with it. In another three to five years, we don't want to keep coming in here every night like this. It's exhausting. But we're not going to change anything. We're proud of our name and the way we've always made our burritos. Why rush to change that?"
Soon Karen, Lee and Ramon, the hesitant patriarch who likes things the old-fashioned way, will meet with the children, nieces and nephews who work at Don Ramon's. Western Convenience has requested that Don Ramon's provide more products than it currently offers, and the realization that it might be time to go bigger is setting in. The family will discuss assigning a portion of the business to every member -- growing, possibly franchising, potentially creating an empire for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The truth of the matter, though, is that not one of them is sure how to go about growing. "We're such a small business, it scares us," Karen says.
Standing outside LoDo's Bar & Grill on a Saturday night, longtime burrito vendor Julian seems immune to his surroundings. It's 12:30 a.m. and the temperature on a nearby bank sign reads 25 degrees, but Julian, a large, gregarious Hispanic man with a welcoming face, wears only a thin Colorado Rockies jacket. No hat, no gloves. A second burrito vendor is positioned halfway down the block, dressed in so many layers that the only visible part of his body is his eyes. Nearby, a homeless man in a fisherman's cap drunkenly dances to the Top 40 crunk-crap belting out of the bar. Another homeless man in Army fatigues with a tangled spider's web of black beard offers to play songs on a harmonica for money. "Do you want to know who I really am?" the man asks to nobody in particular before wandering off.
"Burritos, burritos," Julian says in a sing-song cadence to people walking out of the bar. "Hey, fellas, how about a few burritos?"
Three frat types huddle in front of Julian's blue portable cooler. They haggle over price for a few minutes before settling on two for $3, then buy six breakfast burritos. As they march off down the street, they devour them.
The homeless man in the fatigues stumbles over. He's unearthed a dog-eared, time-weathered collection of photographs from his coat and now rapidly shuffles through the stack, stopping at a picture of a statue of the Virgin Mary on a scenic hill. He points to one of the clouds in the background. "See how that one looks like J.C. on the cross?" he says. "That's me. That's who I really am."
"That's J.R.," Julian says with a smile as the man walks away. "He likes to play that harmonica, make people happy."
Julian, like many Denver entrepreneurs without significant means, sells his homemade burritos on foot. Although he currently focuses on the heavily populated lower-downtown area, he has sold all over town, from the old McNichols Sports Arena to the Tech Center. He says he's sold burritos to just about every local news celebrity and a number of professional athletes, mostly Broncos.
A Denver native who graduated from Lincoln High School, Julian estimates that he's been in the burrito business for nearly thirty years. Growing up in a household run by a single mother, he and his three siblings had to chip in to pay the bills. Selling burritos was a quick and easy way to pick up extra money. "We grew up learning how to hustle," he says. "I was born and raised in this business."
His experience has taught him how to put the proper spin on things. Julian does not refer to himself as a vendor or a peddler, for example, but as a caterer. In his opinion, that's exactly what the vendors selling outside of LoDo bars or the stadiums are doing: catering. They cater fresh food to the people who work in LoDo. They cater to the policemen on the beat. They cater to the people coming out of bars or heading to the games.
"There is a clear need for the product," Julian says. "And we cater to it."
Julian sells only about fifty burritos a night, so, like most vendors, he doesn't rely on catering as his sole source of income. He also sells camera surveillance equipment to support his family. "We're not making millions," Julian says of the downtown vendors. "But I wouldn't have been able to afford rent this month if it wasn't for doing this. We wouldn't have been able to have Christmas."
He makes his burritos in a commissary kitchen -- paying monthly rent for time in a health-department-approved restaurant kitchen. In the winter, he typically works only Friday and Saturday nights, hitting the streets by about 8 p.m. and staying out until the bars close. Sometimes he'll try to hit the happy-hour crowd.
Right now, about a half-dozen other vendors are working the downtown crowd. But in the summer, the warm weather brings more people out and the number of LoDo vendors doubles, maybe triples. Everyone works more hours. There's no real rivalry between the regular burrito salesmen, Julian says, but they all resent those who are doing it illegally.
"There's a lot of illegal salesmen," Julian says. "And it's upsetting, because we're out here doing it legally, you know. We're paying our taxes every year, we're paying for our commissary kitchen, for our permits. It's unfair to us."
The problem with vendors peddling unauthorized burritos -- outside of sticking it to The Man, which you may or may not care about -- is the potential health concern. With a peddler's permit, the health department is able to ensure that burrito vendors at least operate according to the regulations of all retail food-service establishments, are working in an approved commissary kitchen and are keeping the burritos at the correct temperature to avoid contamination. According to the Denver Department of Environmental Health, cold products must be stored at a temperature of 41 degrees or less; hot products must be kept at a temperature of 140 degrees or more. Most burrito peddlers who play according to the letter of the law heat their burritos to a temperature of 180-200 degrees, wrap them in aluminum foil and try to sell them within four hours. If they're truly stringent, they'll discard the burritos after that point.
With a burrito vendor selling without a permit, there's no way of ensuring that the burrito was made in a clean kitchen, that it was stored at the proper temperature or that the meat inside is fresh. Vendors caught selling without a permit or not using an approved commissary kitchen are immediately issued a cease-and desist order and a summons, and their product is confiscated.
The Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, which issues the permits, has no way of monitoring how many people sell burritos on the street illegally but notes that more people apply for permits every year than get in trouble for selling without them. "We may have had a handful of complaints regarding burrito peddlers in the past," estimates Bob McDonald, who's with the city's health department, "but it is certainly not a significant amount."
The police know the legitimate vendors and investigate the new faces. Peddlers are supposed to keep their licenses and ID on them, so anyone hesitant to produce the proper paperwork is an easy target. In the summer, though, policing the peddlers gets more difficult. "It's impossible to check everyone then," comments one officer preparing for Let Out on Market Street. "They move around; it gets packed in here. We've got bigger concerns at that point. I work off-duty at Rockies games sometimes -- there it's even worse."
In other words, let the buyer beware.
"It's a business," Julian says, "just like anything else."
Julian dreams of opening a restaurant one day and taking his burritos off the street. He'd work in his own kitchen, make a variety of Mexican dishes, maybe even rent his space out as a commissary to other burrito vendors. But at the moment, the economy's too bad for him to even think about starting a business.
"No, for now I'll stay right here and do this," Julian concludes. "I'll be doing this for a while."
One of Marisela Aceve's loyal customers is a Montbello woman whose penchant for Milagro burritos borders on addiction. Several times a week, this woman calls Marisela on her cell phone to find out where she's working downtown. They'll arrange a rendezvous point, where the woman will buy Milagro burritos to take back to her neighborhood.
At 10:50 a.m., Marisela pulls her car over to the curb and calls another Milagro vendor. She's already sold out of her allotment of steak burritos, the special for the day, and wants to see if she can arrange a swap.
"Hold on," she tells the vendor. "I've got another call."
The connection is bad, and Marisela patiently works her way through static to describe where she is parked, coaching the woman on the other end to her exact location at 14th and Tremont streets. A few minutes later, a dirty Dodge van screeches around the corner at breakneck speed. It comes to an abrupt stop, the van's front tire up over the curb. In the front seat, a woman with long fingernails, wild hair and a bright, hurried face leans across the passenger seat to address Marisela. In the back of the van are five children ranging in age from five to fifteen.
"Hey, baby," the woman says. "What you got for us today?"
Marisela sells her a dozen assorted burritos. The woman from Montbello hands some back to her children. "We don't go anywhere out near where I live, because these are the best," she explains. "We freeze them and eat them later. I put them in my kids' lunches. We love Marisela's burritos, especially that salsa verde. It burns us up!"
With that, the woman from Montbello lurches back into traffic and, honking and waving, heads down 14th. Marisela follows the vehicle with her eyes, watching as every bobbing head in the van devours one of her burritos.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter