Plenty of research came before Go Burrito was ready for customers
SALISBURY — For a year, Mikey Wetzel and his family dined only at restaurants that doubled as market research.
“We didn’t go out to eat anywhere unless we could learn something from it,” Wetzel said.
He and his wife Lily would scan the menu and decide what everyone in the family should order, giving them the widest variety of foods and sauces to taste test.
Wetzel spent hundreds of hours “spying” at restaurants like Chipotle and Moe’s Southwest Grill, eating burritos, interviewing any employee who would talk to him and even taking photos of food and kitchen equipment.
“Yes, we blatantly copied the success that has been proven before us,” said Wetzel, who also watched dozens of episodes of reality TV shows about failing restaurants, learning what not to do.
Last month, he opened Go Burrito in the former Carousel Cafe location at 115 W. Fisher St. Open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, the restaurant features the second-floor Go Cantina Rum Bar, open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
Wetzel, a video game designer by trade who has never owned a restaurant before, bought the building for $100,000. He then sunk an additional $600,000 into renovations, which include a dog-friendly outdoor patio and soon-to-open rooftop bar.
Originally from California, Wetzel and his sister Tamie Kerr were looking for a Main Street storefront to open a candy shop. They stumbled upon the vacant Carousel Cafe property, which Wetzel said called out for burritos.
The concept for Salisbury’s first made-while-you-watch burrito joint was born.
Building a restaurant from scratch has been a challenge. From the Caribbean theme to the made-from-scratch salsa recipes to the water-saving toilets, Wetzel had to research and decide every aspect of the business.
“I bet I spent eight hours researching which toilet to get,” he said.
The restaurant came together so well that people often think he bought a franchise, Wetzel said.
“First off, Go Burrito is not a chain,” he said. “I’m flattered that people think it is, but it’s a local family affair trying the best we can to add to Salisbury’s dining and nightlife choices.”
The other misperception is that Go Burrito is a fast food restaurant, Wetzel said. It’s actually quick-service, which he said is a subtle but important difference — prices are higher than fast food, but the quality is better.
Customers order at the counter, then carry their food to a table. They fill, and refill, their own drinks. There are no waiters.
Staff can make about 60 burritos in an hour, and the daily record so far is 348 burritos. Wetzel said he needs to sell 250 burritos a day to break even.
Nearly everything at Go Burrito is made from scratch using fresh ingredients. There is not a freezer on the property, and the only thing fried is the homemade tortilla chips.
“The biggest challenge so far has been getting people unfamiliar with the concept to understand it, and also the prices,” he said.
Wetzel said his prices are in line with Moe’s and Chipotle, even though his costs are higher than the burrito franchise giants’. Go Burrito sells a grilled veggie burrito for $6.99, chicken or pork for $7.49 and steak for $7.99.
Depending on the toppings, burritos can easily reach 20 ounces in weight, he said.
“Some of our customers have walked away with a 24-ounce burrito, and that’s not refried beans coming out of a 10-gallon kettle and hot sauce from a packet,” he said.
Unlike Moe’s, chips and salsa at Go Burrito cost extra. But Wetzel points out that Go Burrito customers get more chips and have more salsa choices than at Moe’s.
Chipotle, the market leader for made-to-order burritos chains, charges more than Go Burrito for chips and salsa. Wetzel said he doesn’t make any money on his salsa bar, which last week featured eight flavors including “Pineapple Express” and “Smoky Chipotle.”
Hands down, the most popular flavor has been “Peach Habanero,” a fiery salsa with a rich taste.
Go Burrito is still a work in progress, Wetzel said, and he encouraged customers to be patient while he and his staff, led by restaurant manager Dory McClure and bar manager Sean Sindle, put the finishing touches on the business.
Wetzel recently added quesadillas, salads, tacos and nachos to the menu, which also features a kids meal. Healthy ingredients are prominently featured, including brown rice, real guacamole and quinoa, high-quality grain for vegetarians and vegans that provides a complete protein.
Unlike competitors, Go Burrito grills its burritos in a $2,600 panini press once they are stuffed.
“The difference is almost like comparing white bread to toast,” Wetzel said.
Grilling prevents the tortilla from becoming gummy and sticking to the foil wrapper or the roof of your mouth, he said. It also holds the burrito together better.
For an extra $1, customers can order their burrito “wet” — drenched in queso or red sauce.
Wetzel encourages customers to tip his staff generously.
“We’re not preprocessed fast food,” he said. “I think my employees earn their tips.”
Once the patio and rooftop bar open, Go Burrito will seat 150. Wetzel said his location across from the mural will make Go Burrito a hub of activity during downtown events like Night Out, the Blues and Jazz Festival and Pops at the Post.
Plans include live music, karaoke, open mike nights, video game dance parties, trivia and even open jam sessions.
“Nothing too overbearing or loud, but just perfect for the vibe we are trying to create,” Wetzel said.
The most frequent requests are for take-out menus and online ordering.
“It will come, but I ask people to be patient,” Wetzel said. “Remember, we’re not a chain, and we’re ramping up as fast as we can.”
Renovating the 114-year-old building took about a half-year, but construction was delayed for months due to Wetzel’s now infamous problems with the county’s permitting process.
Go Burrito became a prime example of the frustration of developers who want to reuse old buildings in downtown Salisbury. In the aftermath of Go Burrito and several other construction projects that were significantly delayed, Rowan County has revamped its building code enforcement department to be more business-friendly and help developers find safe but creative ways to rehabilitate vacant buildings.
Central Piedmont Builders basically rebuilt the entire interior of the restaurant from the new roof to the concrete floor, installing massive steel beams to support the rooftop bar.
“To quote my builder, you can park a fire truck up there now,” Wetzel said.
They salvaged as much original material as they could, including hardwood floors on the second story, brick walls, plaster walls and all windows.
Randy Hemann, executive director for Downtown Salisbury Inc., helped immensely during the development process, Wetzel said, and gave Go Burrito a 12-foot easement in the alley to create the sunken patio.
So far, Wetzel’s biggest surprise has been the number of repeat customers.
Several people have eaten at Go Burrito nearly every day since it opened, and a few have eaten there twice a day.
Wetzel said he expected feedback from customers but has been surprised to find their No. 1 comment has been, “Thank you.”
“I expected ‘Good luck,’ ‘Congratulations,’ “ he said. “But what I get is people coming up to me, very sincerely, and saying ‘Thank you for adding to Salisbury. Thank you for all your hard work.’
“I can’t tell you the joy that comes out of that.”
Building Go Burrito has been financially painful for the Wetzel family, he said. Wetzel and his wife, who owns a real estate agency that specializes in High Rock Lake properties, have poured “every cent” into the business, borrowing to the hilt and making personal sacrifices, including preparing to disconnect their home cable TV, phone and Internet.
Wetzel, whose extended family has moved to the Salisbury area from California and Washington, said he’s convinced Salisbury will support the made-to-order burrito concept.
“This is going to pay off,” he said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.