Food & DrinkFood Features

Johnny Burrito Became a Charlotte Staple Over 25 Years Through Word-of-Mouth

A chat with Johnny Bitter about building a loyal customer base from a basement

Johnny Biter inside his takeout spot, Johnny Burrito, which celebrated 25 years in business over the summer. (Photo by Charles Knight)

In his mid-30s in 1998, Johnny Bitter found himself working in the Uptown offices of what was then First Union Bank in Uptown Charlotte, already tiring of the corporate life after 15 years.

He and his wife Patti had always wanted to own a small business together, and as new parents to a 1-year-old, they figured their window of opportunity was closing. When the Pizza Inn that was located in the downstairs hallway of Bitter’s office building closed, Johnny and Patti decided it was their chance.

On June 1, 1998, the couple officially opened Johnny Burrito, a fast-casual California-style burrito joint with an emphasis on the fast — but without skimping on ingredients or customer service.

“It’s been out the door ever since,” Bitter told Queen City Nerve, referencing the daily line of Uptown workers (COVID notwithstanding) that can be seen outside his tiny shop below what is now Two Wells Fargo Atrium.

The past year has been one of milestones for the Bitters, who saw their first employee, someone who had been with them since that firsy day in June 1998, retire last December.

Johnny ran a secretive campaign in the lead-up to Martha Harris’ last day, soliciting donations from customers to pay off the remaining $47,000+ left on her mortgage. The Bitters then celebrated 25 years in business over the summer.

We caught up with Johnny on a recent afternoon to see how the campaign for Martha Harris has fared and look back on how he’s been able to turn his tiny little basement storefront into a Charlotte staple with no advertising, very little social media presence and a website that hasn’t been updated since the 20th century.

Queen City Nerve: How did you land on the California-style burrito while developing this concept?

Johnny Bitter: In the food service business, nobody was doing this in town. Twenty-five years ago I would tell people, “We’re going to do a burrito place,” and they’d say, “Oh, Taco Bell.” No, it’s not that. It’s more craft, which craft wasn’t a thing back then, but I said, “No, no, these are marinated meats, and we’re chopping our own vegetables and all that kind of thing.”

I went out to California and did some studying out there, different places that were really good and just how their operations were, and said, “Oh, yeah, this will be something good.” I had been downtown for about 15 years and I knew you needed speed, quality, reasonable price, but have something that’s good and people can get fast and you can move people through. That’s the biggest thing downtown that I don’t think a lot of people get: You got a limited amount of time to make your money, and so you got to make it really fast, and that’s working the line.

Those first few days, I just realized that we didn’t have the throughput, and we had to double up on some pico and guac and that kind of thing so you could get more people rolling at the end of the line. You can have one server and one cashier, but at the end of the line was where the pinch point was.

So we redesigned that whole setup in the first few days to get the throughput, and it literally doubled in a few days. That was the key to being able to run people through this thing.

People will stand in line if you’re kind of taking a step and then 10 or 15 seconds, a step, 10 or 15 seconds, a step. If they’re standing there for five minutes, they’re going to go on somewhere else.

You’ve built a reputation not only for speed but for great customer service. How did you prioritize that?

It’s a great joint; we have a good time. And that’s one of the things I think that really comes across with customers is that everybody in here, all of our staff is very helpful. If you need something extra, we’ll get it for you. We’re not nickel and diming you. It’s one price upfront. You’re the boss for the next 10 feet and everything’s included. We’re not dinging you on queso and guacamole and you got too much of this or that or you want something extra on the side, just go ahead and do it. It makes the customer experience that much better.

Johnny Burrito owner stands arms outstretched showing off a bunch of catering trays
Johnny Bitter serving up Johnny Burrito catering in the earlier days. (Photo courtesy of Johnny Burrito)

I think there’s a lot of training where, if you go in certain restaurants, they have a scoop portion and that’s what you get. “We’re just putting that much in there.” Some people come in, “All I want, Johnny, is steak and cheese.” Yeah, well, we’re going to give you half-a-dozen scoops of steak and a big old handful of cheese. So a burrito is still a burrito. Whether you get two things or 20 things, it’s going to be the same size. And I think a lot of places don’t get that right, and they don’t get the customer experience.

Were there some major ups and downs that stuck with you over the last 25 years? The obvious one is COVID, but before then?

Before then, well, the 2008 financial crisis. I mean, in 25 years, we’ve been through probably two or three recessions and banking downturns and that kind of thing, but 2008 was bad. People would come, but if they were coming two days a week, they were then coming one day a week. If they were getting a burrito and a drink and chips and salsa, they were just getting the burrito. So your frequency went down and your average ticket price went down. But we were able to weather that because a lot of people said, “Well, this is the last thing I’m cutting out, Johnny.” 

But a lot of people were concerned about their job and their future. And downtown and wallets tightened up significantly during that time for probably a good year or so at that point. And then I’m sure we had other downturns and things that happened over 25 years, but 2008 financial really stuck out. And then COVID, of course, was just horrific.

And what pivots did you pull off to weather that?

Oh, my gosh. Well, our customer base is generally 80% professional office [workers] and 20% construction and contractors. During COVID there was so much construction downtown and not very many office workers. We had our reduced customer base, but of that, 80% were construction and contractors and that kind of thing during COVID and 20% were the office workers.

We did curbside delivery. We had Johnny in the House, deconstructed burritos and nachos and you could take everything home and then assemble it yourself … We had neighborhoods where we would go and deliver 10 or 15 or 20 or 25 meal packs, and everybody in the neighborhood would get together and I’d go to one house and offload everything. So we had just sort of word-of-mouth from folks who were already loyal customers.

Plus the PPP. I mean, obviously as for most small businesses, we had to have it. I’m not generally big on government assistance and that kind of thing, but we certainly needed it.

I was fortunate enough, my wife is a CPA. She was still working. It didn’t really affect her business that much. We were in good shape financially. She still had a paycheck coming in, so I didn’t have to get paid for nine months and I could pay my guys. I was able to keep my staff during the whole time.

Have you seen the traffic pick back up?

Oh, absolutely. We’re as busy as we’ve ever been. So, yeah, it has all come back for us. Even with three or four days, they’re not all coming the same three or four days.

I will say Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are the busiest days. Monday and Friday can be 20 to 30% less customer count and revenue because a lot of people take a Monday or a Friday off, work from home or remote. But Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are very good.

A photo of Johnny Burrito's signage with LED lights outside of his storefront.
Johnny Burrito is located underneath Two Wells Fargo Atrium in Uptown and open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on weekdays. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

I think a little bit after COVID, too, people realized that a lot of their local spots closed because they weren’t able to get the money and they didn’t have that much in savings. And now post-COVID, and hopefully it sort of continues, there’s been more of a focus on local. We’ve seen a lot of local push of people saying, “Yeah, we really want to support these kinds of places,” as opposed to a national chain, which they’re fine, too, but you lose a lot of color and character without having local places.

You made headlines about a year ago with your campaign to pay off Martha Harris’ mortgage. How did that come about?

Martha was my first employee, and you don’t need 25 bouquets of flowers and a gold watch, right. So I was thinking and talking with my wife one day, and I just casually asked Martha, “How much you got on your mortgage left?” [She said,] “Well, Johnny, it’s about $47,200,” and I said, “Okay.” So I went home, I told my wife, I said, ‘“We need to try to pay Martha’s house off.” I can’t do everything for everybody, but I can help one person, right, and try to make a difference in life with one person.

We had $10,000 that I could put from Johnny Burrito towards it, and then we had a little flier and we just gave it out and said, “Can you keep a secret? We’re trying to pay Martha’s house off.” They could do Venmo, they could do cash, they could put it on their card, they could write me a check, whatever. Martha was the best roller ever. Everybody loved Martha. Everybody wanted Martha to roll their burrito. She probably missed less days than I did in 25 years. So everybody thought it was just a great idea. And we got donations from a dollar all the way up to $3,000.

You presented her with a check on her retirement day. Did you reach the total?

We’re still taking donations. We’ve got less than $5,000 to go now, so we almost reached our goal. I go see her every three weeks. She likes the pork adobo, she likes picadillo tamales, she wants a burrito. So I take her a care package every three weeks.

You’ve gathered an impressive collection of ephemera on your walls over 25 years, considering the size of the place.

Well, there was nothing on the wall 25 years ago, and it’s just a naturally occurring collection. We got a lot of articles … and so we’d put those up, and then there’d be some other stuff, just anything ya know; you take a trip somewhere and I’d bring something back, stick it on the wall. And it’s just sort of grown from there.

You seem like an eccentric collector. A big part of your website is dedicated to “ugly money” that’s been collected from your shop over the years.

[Laughs] It caught my eye. We still get a good bit of cash, but, of course, 25 years ago, we got a lot more cash, and I would see something that was written or drawn or burned or mutilated or something on a bill, and I didn’t have time during the day, so I’d just throw it off to the side and then I would buy the money out so that I could keep it. And then after, I don’t know, six months or a year, I mean, I kind of had a stack of cash. “What am I going to do with this?” So I thought, I’ll put it up on the website. And so I started cataloging the stamped, mutilated, burned dollars in different categories and then scanning the bills in and putting them up on the website.

A look at the Ugly Money menu on Johnny Burrito’s website.

Speaking of the website, it’s got major old-school vibes.

The website, it’s kind of become retro-cool. That is funny. It was just kind of the original; that’s what they looked like, the few websites that were out there. People have tried to update it and all that, but I never said yes. And now people come in and go, “Man, I love that 1990s website.” So now I’m just leaving it. I don’t need to fool with it.

With many workers returning to the office, we’ve seen a bit of a revamp to the Uptown dining scene for the lunch crowd. Monarch Market is the big new thing. Latta Arcade’s new ownership has pushed out some longtime tenants and welcomed in newer ones. Is that a concern for an older, more casual spot like Johnny Burrito?

I think as long as we have the customer base that we do and have lines like we do every day, I think it’s good. You turn out a good product and you have a good reputation — there’s always room for places like that. And you can try to chase the next new thing, but how many of those places will be here in two, three, even five years? A lot of these places will turn over.

And that’s another thing about having a shop where I’m here, I work it, I see what’s going on. I’m on the ground floor, I see what’s happening a lot of times when you grow and you lose touch with your customer base and with the restaurant and that kind of thing, and quality goes down if you’re not there. Restaurant business is really hard. It’s a difficult business. You’re only as good as your last burrito, and you’ve got to deliver every single time.

And a lot of these places that I see come in, they’ve got people that are not as dedicated to the mission, and you’re dealing with a different set of workers. For our crew, they are fantastic and they all get it. I’ve got a lot of people that are here more than 20 years, so you can just let them do their thing. Same person does the pico every day. Same person cooks every day.

So you don’t have any aspirations for another Johnny Burrito location?

Not at my age. I’m 61 now, so the plane is landing at some point.

Do you have a date in mind for that plane to land?

It’s not 10 more years, I guess, but it’s not a year either. So it’s somewhere in there. We get a little bit of interest in people asking and maybe wanting to take over. So we’ll see. There will be a time.

I’m older, but I don’t feel old. I can still do everything. I feel it at the end of the day more than I did 25 years ago. But it’s not burnout … I can’t do maybe as much as I used to or lift as much, as often, but it still doesn’t bother me.

But you don’t want to work so long that you’re not able to enjoy some retirement a little bit either, right? I probably won’t be in here in 10 years, but we’re going to be here several more years anyway.

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