Raymond Pierandozzi, Ian Lanier, Matt King, and Travis Toms 17025 S. Golden Road, Golden 720-556-6269 bonfireburritos.com
For most high-school students, lunch is a chance to catch up with friends. But for four Golden kids, lunchtime burritos at the nearby Bonfire Burritos trailer were more than just a way to escape the classroom. They ultimately became a way that the friends could stay together as business partners, building a burrito business in the town they've all called home since before they were teenagers.
Raymond "Ray" Pierandozzi moved to Golden from Philadelphia when he was in the sixth grade, and soon met Ian Lanier, Matt King and Travis Toms. Although burritos smothered in green chile hadn't been part of his early-childhood menu, anyone who moves to Colorado soon learns to love them -- and not just for lunch, but for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The four friends found their midday fix at a trailer just over a mile from Golden High School that was operated by an elderly Mexican woman. Their burrito ritual became so ingrained that they jokingly attribute their excellence in sports and academics to the "daily consumption of this super-food."
After the four graduated, in 2006, they went on to college along the Front Range and then pursued various careers (King moved to Alaska to fight forest fires; Lanier, Toms and Pierandozzi stayed closer to home). Visits to the trailer became less frequent but no less cherished. Then Pierandozzi saw a notice that Cecilia -- the woman responsible for fueling a generation of Golden graduates -- was selling her business and retiring from life as a burrito peddler. He knew almost instantly that he wanted to buy the place and begin a new career in food service. After a couple of weeks of discussion, his friends decided that they wanted to be a part of the project, too, and they all approached Cecilia. A few signatures later, Bonfire was theirs.
"Once we bought it, we were all in," says Pierandozzi. "There was never a moment where we said, 'We shouldn't have done this.'" But he also admits that the four went into the project blind: Although there had been a few restaurant jobs -- waiting tables and the like -- none of them had any real experience cooking on a large scale or running a food business, even if it was just a simple trailer. So they started with the basics: learning how to make the green chile, salsas and meats for the burritos. They trained with Cecilia for a week -- her daughter was there to help translate -- and recorded her every move on video to capture the process.
They quickly realized that they wanted to modernize the trailer and give it more appealing branding to draw a larger customer base. That was all a learning experience, too: Working with graphic designers and remodeling the kitchen inside the tiny trailer took a little more time than they'd anticipated.
But after a couple of months, the reborn Bonfire Burritos was ready for business. They wanted to open with a splash, Lanier remembers, so they spent hours on a social-media campaign reaching out to everyone they knew to invite them to come to the opening. And come they did, but there was one big problem: On opening morning, the stoves wouldn't fire. The owners had been up all night prepping, but no one had thought to give the equipment a test run. Rather than send everyone home disappointed, they sent a friend for some Sterno and cooked for 300 people that day.
"That was the hardest part," says Pierandozzi, "the initial shock of cooking for this many people." Even with the recipes, the videos and the practice, "it took a little bit of trial and error."
"It was definitely sink or swim," adds King, who still works summers in Alaska but returns to Golden in the winter to help with the business. "Now we're learning ways to be more efficient." At a little over six feet tall, he can't stand up straight inside the trailer, but on cold days he still prefers working inside, where it's cozy and comfortable. Lacking air-conditioning, Bonfire can get stuffy on hot days. "We have a thermometer inside, and I've seen it hit 130," King notes.
Toms and Pierandozzi put in the most hours at Bonfire, splitting up opening duties for breakfast (Bonfire starts cooking at 6:30 a.m. weekdays, a little later on weekends). Toms, the quiet one of the group, has taken on the role of head cook; Pierandozzi handles the advertising and marketing and the day-to-day operational tasks. "I do most of the accounting and back-end compliance work," says Lanier, "but when it comes down to it and you're working inside the trailer, you put on every hat possible, and it doesn't matter the circumstance -- you have to perform."
Keep reading for more with the four Bonfire Burritos guys.
And with their customer base expanding, they're performing a lot. The high-school kids who seemed to be missing for a while have started to return. "We see the same kinds of kids coming in now and making it their tradition," says Pierandozzi. Students from the School of Mines are also a big part of the clientele, as are working-class neighbors in the commercial strip that the Bonfire trailer calls home: It's permanently installed in the parking lot of a local nursery. Other customers include cyclists taking food on trips up the canyons and groups of skiers getting big orders to go. One regular brings his son and a chessboard and sits outside by the wooden table, eating burritos and playing chess. And, of course, there are the old friends from Golden High School who come by. "There are people I haven't seen for years," says Lanier, "people I barely even see on Facebook."
But Bonfire is also beginning to attract longtime Golden residents who had never come to the trailer before, he adds.
Working fifty to sixty hours a week as a burrito vendor means eating a lot of burritos. Pierandozzi says he and Toms ate Bonfire forty days in a row earlier this year. To keep meals from getting too repetitive, they experiment with ingredients and combinations, and as a result have expanded the menu from Cecilia's original lineup, which consisted only of the classic breakfast and lunch burritos, with a choice of pork, chicken or carne asada.
"We added a build-your-own section, but nobody ever did it," says Lanier. "So we added specialties three months ago." Bonfire now offers four breakfast burritos, five lunch burritos and a selection of tacos. Pierandozzi is fond of the Burro and the Jackalope breakfast burritos, but there are also the Chupacabra and the Javelina, which feature ingredients like breakfast sausage, chorizo, bacon and cotija cheese. The partners are also roasting and selling Anaheim chiles and jalapeños from a gas-powered drum roaster, and they plan to add corn to the roster next year.
Those Anaheims are part of Bonfire's green-chile recipe; Pierandozzi thinks they work better than Hatch chiles because they're meatier and they peel more easily once roasted. That green chile might also contain a "secret ingredient," he suggests -- not coyly, but as part of his admission that he'd never made green chile before getting full-immersion training from Cecilia. "It's a labor of love and takes all day."
After that first-day disaster, the four friends have the Bonfire trailer running fairly smoothly, although there was one dicey situation with a burned pot of chile at a cookoff (people loved it anyway, thinking it was smoked). "The goal is definitely to get into a brick-and-mortar," says Lanier, "and keep this as a seasonal place." "We're proving ourselves -- making this our test," he adds.
The four are raising funds and collecting capital so that whatever they do with Bonfire in the future, it will have the same vibe and the same quality. Location depends on opportunity, but they'd love to expand in Golden. "But we could take this place anywhere and these burritos would sell," says Pierandozzi.
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It's been twelve years since the four teenagers took their first bites of Cecilia's magical burritos and fueled their future dreams. "Twelve years," reflects Lanier. "That's a lot of Bonfire."