Contra Costa Times | 05/20/2003 | Burrito 'king' falls on hard times
In 1984, Julian E. Montoya, also known as the Burrito King, was on top of the world.Starting with one taco stand at Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado Street in the late 1960s, he had built a burrito empire stretching from Anaheim to Bogota, Colombia.He was a senior official of the Los Angeles Olympics, with choice seats at all events.He ran the classiest Latin American restaurant in Los Angeles, Cache, a white-tablecloth cafe that attracted the likes of Julio Iglesias and Gloria Estefan.He and his wife, Arita, had moved into a big house in Santa Clarita, 20 miles from the crowds and traffic of the city.
Then Murphy's Law set in.
Competition grew fierce in the burrito business, Montoya
recalled in a series of conversations.He
failed to capitalize on a chance to franchise his
operation or take it public.His
employees stole his
profits and his
said.The 1994 Northridge earthquake wrecked his
new house a month after he
had turned down the chance to buy an earthquake insurance policy.
The Burrito King chain, once 20 restaurants, has shrunk to two.Cache
is just a memory.The Montoyas are living in a two-bedroom bungalow behind a Burrito King on Hyperion Avenue.Montoya's
biggest project now is the restaurant concession at a city golf course in the San Fernando Valley
, a venture he
described as thin in profits and thick with bureaucracy.
"It's like the biblical story of the pharaoh's seven fat cows and seven skinny cows," Montoya
, 64, said as he
surveyed the nearly empty dining room at the Woodley Lakes Golf Course restaurant one recent afternoon.
arrived in Miami in 1960 from his
native Colombia, a 22-year-old architecture student looking for a new life.He moved to Memphis to continue his studies at Christian Brothers College, which would not accept his credits from Colombia, and he ended up working for a pharmaceutical company.
said, "I got a beautiful letter from Uncle Sam welcoming me to the United States Army
."He joined the Navy instead, and was stationed in San Diego, where he was introduced to the fast-food burrito, a dollop of fried pinto beans on a flour tortilla, sometimes dressed with a spoonful of shredded cheese.
Nobody was making much money on these 50-cent concoctions, but Montoya
noticed that a steady stream of Mexican laborers lined up to buy them.Montoya left the Navy and moved to Los Angeles, joining United California Bank as a junior loan officer.
One of his
customers owned a failing taco stand at Sunset and Alvarado in Echo Park, a diverse middle-class neighborhood west of downtown Los Angeles.Montoya
bought the stand and the name Burrito King.He
job at the bank and managed the walk-up restaurant from his
home.The place became a late-night haven for police officers, students and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who arrived in tuxedos after performances.Montoya
bought another taco stand at Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, and renamed it Burrito King, too.Then another at Pico Boulevard and Vermont.Then the current flagship Burrito King at Hyperion and Rowena Avenues in the Silver Lake neighborhood.By the early 1980s, Burrito King had opened a stand in Bogota, two in Houston, two in Anaheim and more than a dozen others around Los Angeles County.
Burrito King's signature meal was machacha burrito, made with simmered, slightly sweet beef, refried beans, green peppers and onions.Transplanted Angelenos wrote odes to them and ordered them shipped across the country in dry ice.Food critics raved.Catering orders poured in.
But as the business grew, it became harder to monitor quality and expenses, Montoya
recalled: "The cook took me aside and said, 'Here's how it works: You take the order; you take the cash and don't put it in the register.At the end of the night we split it."'Montoya
did not go to the police.
Chains offered inferior food, Montoya
said, but their lower prices cut into Burrito King's profits, and the damage was done.Montoya
started selling stores, concentrating on the restaurant Cache
, which opened in 1984.Montoya
was a minor celebrity in Los Angeles by then.
"It was a nice time, but I was already going down financially," Montoya
said."Like the song says, 'Regrets, I have a few."'
Among them were failing to franchise the Burrito King name and menu, and not pursuing a feeler from PepsiCo
about buying the chain.
As the chain shrank, Montoya
wife began controlling employees more closely.Today, at the Hyperion Avenue Burrito King, he
has closed-circuit cameras watching the kitchen, the dining room, the parking lot and the cashier.The Montoyas can monitor the operation on the big-screen television in the bedroom of their house behind the restaurant.Montoya
still has the trappings of success: a Jaguar and a Lexus in the driveway and a Rolex on his
wrist.But, he said: "I miss the days when I had one taco stand and was an executive at the bank.