This is part of the 2013 NRN 50 special report, "Breakout Brands." This year NRN takes a look at 50 brands that are some of today's hottest emerging concepts. Meet the concepts shaking up the restaurant marketplace.
Boston-based Boloco has been acknowledged by all manner of press and people. It has been recognized by The Washington Post, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe and Ernst & Young and has been the subject of much Internet chatter.
With so much buzz, it might seem that Boloco is a nationwide chain with dozens of locations. But it’s not — not yet, anyway.
The 15-year-old “globally inspired burritos” concept currently has 21 outlets throughout New England and has been growing units by approximately 20 percent to 25 percent per year. The most recent branches were opened in two new markets: Washington, D.C., and Bethesda, Md. Three new stores are set to open in 2013. In addition, the company is exploring expansion opportunities through joint-venture partnerships and franchising.
“The personality of the brand has made us much bigger,” said Boloco founder and chief executive John Pepper. “We get requests to be everywhere.”
But it wasn’t always that way.
Pepper and several friends opened their first restaurant in 1997 — then called Under Wraps — on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. It served Mexican-style burritos and also used the burrito tortillas to create wraps filled with more exotic ingredients. The idea was inspired by Pepper’s love of West Coast taqueria culture and his then-favorite sandwich shop, World Wrapps, which some credit as having launched the wrap as it exists today.
But consumers weren’t quite ready for burritos or wraps with unfamiliar ingredients.
“It was an idea that was ahead of its time,” Pepper said. “We had to evolve.”
The decision to make course corrections helped to transform the concept. Those changes included making sure every ingredient was flavorful, even without sauce; offering three sizes of burritos; using social media to convey what Pepper called the brand’s “appealingly off-center” personality; and adding such employee benefits as English as a second language classes, IRA matching and health insurance.
And while Boloco’s food has earned much recognition, Pepper said he knew the brand had made it when he won the 2012 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year New England Award, which recognized the brand not only for its food and customer service, but also for the way it treats its employees.
“I thought, ‘Now we finally got recognized for what matters,’” Pepper said. “That was our breakout moment.”
Foodservice consultant and restaurateur Aaron Noveshen, the founder of the wraps chain that inspired Boloco, isn’t surprised at the success of the brand.
“They are a great brand and a great company with great leadership,” Noveshen said.
He credited Boloco’s success to Pepper’s hands-on management as well as the brand’s effective use of social media.
“[Boloco’s] social media presence is meaningful, fun, how people want to interact with customers,” Noveshen said.