Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Business of Building a Better Burrito - Pedro and Vinny's - Arlington

We’ll call it the van Gogh effect:  if commerce is anathema to the artist, then the artist without money is anathema to himself.  Toxic.  Even deadly.  Vincent van Gogh sold but one painting in his lifetime, The Red Vineyard near Arles, and the combined enormity of his artistic obscurity and financial penury—it’s widely believed—compelled an already-troubled van Gogh, at a still-wet-behind-the-ears 37, to walk to a sunny wheat field and forever stop his own heart with a bullet fired from a pretty blue gun.  The same effect is true for the restaurant business.  No matter how many Michelin stars, Beard awards, or appearances on Top Chef, no matter how impassioned or earnest a chef’s attempts to revolutionize gastronomy and forever change the way we eat, if a restaurant fails to be busy, fails to consistently turn tables one-and-a-half times a night and burn through a hundred-or-so covers, day in, day out, the restaurant is inevitably shuttered, and the chef’s vision, however grand or noble, is doomed by the cruel and irrefutable truth that nowhere outside the restaurant business is it ever truer that numbers never, ever fail to tell you the truth. 

To the uninitiated, the calculus of restaurant math must surely read like some mathematical Gordian knot of tangents, differentials, and functions.  But it’s not.  Restaurant math is simple.  It’s easy.  The math can be expressed in a single word:  margins.  To operate in the pink, a restaurant’s margins must be three times greater than its cost on everything.  What are those costs, exactly?  A restaurant’s financial pie is typically portioned like this:  30% food and wine cost, 30% labor, 20% is everything else, including rent, leaving—in the very best of times—just 20% profit for owners and operators.  Ideally, a restaurant’s monthly rent should not exceed what it grosses on its slowest day.  In haute cuisine, a restaurateur has several ways of making his margins.  While he takes a beating on the veal chop you just ordered (he’s lucky if he’s broken even), he’ll recoup his losses on the protein, the napkins and table lines (among the many things he can’t directly charge you for), through the Chardonnay-by-the-glass you’ve ordered (marked up four times its cost) and the crème brulee (which costs him virtually nothing) with which you finish your meal.  Ten percent profit at these margins makes him a success story.  Twenty percent gives him the biggest swinging dick in town.

But how, then, does the restaurateur who sells no alcohol, no appetizers, no cheese course, no dessert, possibly navigate the turbulent waters of financial solvency and stay afloat?  How does a purveyor of street food possibly sell something as calorically massive and protein-dense as a burrito and still make his margins? 

He gets creative.  He opens and operates the remarkable Pedro and Vinny’s in a double-wide trailer, a veritable white trash special, retrofitted with industrial cooking space, refrigeration, and a glassed-in customer waiting area (evocative of the American front porch) that stands, proudly, less than a mile from the Pentagon building itself, along the quickly-gentrifying Columbia Pike corridor of Arlington, Virginia, and he sells one thing, and one thing only:  burritos.

And sells lots of them.

For me, the burrito occupies that liminal culinary space of middle distance between all that’s astonishingly good about Mexican cuisine (that it would come from Guanajuanto as the penultimate people’s food, there called the taco de harina), and all that’s bad following the there’s-smallpox-in-the-blankets contact with Anglo agents of culinary armageddon like Taco Bell.  The burrito is stoner food:  always filling, rarely anything special.  But let’s not blame the burrito for not trying hard enough.  It’s ungainly.  A clumsy food.  It throws like a girl and has two left feet.  And its failure lies in that typical over-pleaser’s overreach of trying to be everything to all people all of the time.  The typical burrito is a veritable riot of competing tastes, textures, and culinary interests, wrapped in the straightjacket of a flour tortilla, and forced to fight it out for dominance in the flavor profile.  The burrito is a gastronomic Lord of the Flies.  Beans.  Rice.  Steak or chicken.  Tomatoes.  Avocadoes.  Corn.  Cheese.  Sour cream.  In there, inside that tortilla, within that very non-Mexican dairy product, there are no survivors.  It’s a Jim Morrison biography and Shakespearean bloodbath rolled into one—no one there is getting out alive.  It’s a culinary equation whose value is often less than the sum of its parts.  And it’s the only time a burrito is ever really a good idea—when, as They Might Be Giants will testify, the statue got you high, dude.

Except here.  Except at Pedro and Vinny’s.  Here the burrito begs clear-minded consumption.  Here the burrito transcends the middle-brow aspirations of its flour tortilla brethren and becomes something truly remarkable deserving of daily use.  Richard (pictured left) is the owner/operator of Pedro and Vinny’s, and what he has done is truly remarkable.  He has found two ways to make his margins.  Each is risky.  Each is highly creative.  First, he’s decided to slash overhead by operating in a parking lot, out of a ramshackle double-wide, in one of the most hyper-inflated and rapidly up-and-coming commercial real estate markets in suburban Washington.  Second, he’s decided to manage food cost by eliminating food waste in offering a menu made of a single item—the burrito—and a very finite compliment of accompaniments.  It’s a ballsy restaurant model to say the least.  It bets the ranch that his burritos are good enough to sustain an entire culinary enterprise.  Lucky for Richard (and you and me), the burritos really and truly are exceptionally good.  Oh sure, Richard offers a “bowl” option for the khaki wearers of the world, and the word salad does, in fact, appear above the plating line, but burritos is really all Pedro and Vinny’s serves and all you should really ever eat. 

To enter Pedro and Vinny’s is to undertake the architecture to your own immediate culinary destiny.  You are asked to choose from one of four tortillas (herbed and tomato-heavy varieties augment the “white” flour standard) and whether or not cheese will adorn that tabula rasa of culinary possibility.  Then you are asked to choose a protein from a trio of usual suspects:  beef, chicken and pork (there is a vegetarian option as well, though I suspect its inclusion is intended to placate the local chapter of PETA).  I go with steak.  With the foundation laid, it’s on to the expo line for adornment and architectural detail.  I ask Richard for everything and am given black beans, avocado, pico, sour cream…you get the idea.  It’s the everything-and-the-kitchen sink approach to gastronomy.  All that’s missing here, I think, is a hookah full of Humbolt County, Calfornia’s, most celebrated export, and a poster of the Red Hot Chili Peppers taped to the wall.  But the next question I’m asked assuages all doubts, and I know that I have, in Richard, a true collaborator and kindred spirit:  how hot do I want my burrito?  That’s the question, how hot, on a scale of one to ten.  I consider the question and quickly find my answer.  Kill me, I say.  Richard smiles, then administers four—count ‘em, four—pepper sauces from a series of unmarked bottles whose combined arsenal of Scoville heat units could, I fear, blister parts of me where, as they say, the sun don’t shine.  So I pay, find a seat on a parking lot picnic table, and prepare, best I can, to be repaid my hot-sauce hubris by being destroyed, as it were, from the inside out.

But no.  This burrito is different.  It’s like no burrito I’ve ever encountered before.  It’s…it’s…it’s…balanced.  Flavors are layered.  They work singularly and together, like some weird burrito hippie commune, where the avocado is always giving the skirt steak a back rub.  But there’s more to it.  Sure, its flavor points are dancing together like the cast of Hair, and sure, it’s spicy enough to have made me sweat, profusely, while sitting outside on a brisk November day, but there’s an element to the burrito that is, in every way, novel and divine.  So I cut it in half and eviscerate the fat bastard.  I gut it and go in for a look.  And immediately I have my answer:  there’s a dice of cucumber in my burrito, fucking cucumber.  It’s madness.  It’s also a masterstroke.  What’s achieved is texture—crunch—and a slight bitterness to act as ballast against the mighty tug of sweet dairy, not to mention the water content needed to blunt the infernal blaze of pepper sauce.

It’s a small thing, putting those cucumbers in my burrito.  Some might even call it a heresy.  But I call it genius, because it tells me that Richard is paying attention to the small things.  Genius because a restaurant is, after all, all about the small things, and how all those small things add up.  The restaurant game is a game of inches.  I’ve done the math, and I don’t know how it was possible for Richard to make much money (if any) on what he served me.  But he’s been doing fine this year, he tells me.  Business is good, and getting better every day.  He says he’s pleased by the yuppie filing cabinet of luxury high-rise apartments (my words) built directly behind him, pleased by the nearby high-end grocery store, pleased by the yoga studio newly built but a stone’s throw from his back door.  He thinks the new influx of chai-mocha-latte-sipping yuppies and their concentration of relative wealth will bring him and his burrito shop prosperity in the coming year.  But I don’t share Richard’s optimism.  Richard doesn’t know white people the way I do (being a white person myself).  White people drive Volkswagens.  They listen to the Dave Mathews Band.  They shop at the Gap.  And they will likely find Pedro and Vinny’s a not-so-charming eyesore of dubious culinary merit consuming commercial square footage that could otherwise be occupied by a Starbucks or Smoothie King.  But Richard has one significant talisman in his gastronomic pocket to combat the corruptive forces of gentrification:  he has the best burrito in town.  Richard also knows a thing or two about Volkswagen-driving, Gap-loving, latte-sipping, Dave-Mathews-listening white people that I have failed to consider:  they smoke weed.  They get stoned.  And when stoned, white people buy burritos.  Enough burritos to make his margins.

Go to Pedro and Vinny's.  Eat one for me.  Just remember:  I like mine hot.

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