Saturday, October 25, 2014

Burritos wrapped in warm memories

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 10/16/2013

Steam rises above a portable vendor cart on a brisk Tuesday morning as Sam Pacheco grabs a pork burrito from the warmer pan.

“Pork’s my favorite,” a bearded man, who had pulled up beside the stainless steel cart in his Chevrolet truck, said. “I like coming here cause it’s handy, cheap and good.”

Steam rises above a portable vendor cart on a brisk Tuesday morning as Sam Pacheco grabs a pork burrito from the warmer pan.

“Pork’s my favorite,” a bearded man, who had pulled up beside the stainless steel cart in his Chevrolet truck, said. “I like coming here cause it’s handy, cheap and good.”

Pacheco, clad in blue jeans and a U.S. Marine Corps hoodie to ward off the October-morning chill, smiled at the customer’s comment.

A big Chrysler rolled to a stop next to Pacheco’s cart in the Brandywine Liquors parking lot, 1605 S. Main St., Ottawa. The shiny cart, attached to Pacheco’s forest green Jeep, was a familiar sight to hundreds of passersby that morning.

“I wrapped them up especially for you so I wouldn’t sell them,” Pacheco said as he handed two brisket burritos through the window of the Chrysler to one of his regular customers.

“Thank you, thank you,” the woman said. “Now I won’t have to cook lunch. Bye-bye.”

The exchanges with customers continued into the noon hour as Pacheco filled order after order from his burrito cart. Some customers parked in the spacious lot and walked over to the stand, while others drove right up next to the cart to casually place their orders as though they were sitting at a restaurant’s drive-up window.

The 58-year-old U.S. Marine veteran arrives in the parking lot at 7 a.m. Tuesday through Friday to sell breakfast burritos of sausage, bacon, ham and chorizo, a Mexican-style sausage, made by his wife Maria, co-owner of Maria’s Mexican restaurant, 314 S. Main St., Ottawa.

“We get up at 3:45 in the morning to try to get a run in and get our workout in, then get back to the restaurant by 6,” Pacheco said of his daily routine. “Maria starts rolling burritos, so I’m out here by 7. Hopefully, I’m back [at the restaurant] by 8:30 to get reloaded to be back out here by 11.”

For lunch, Pacheco’s cart usually is stocked with burritos made of beans and cheese, beans, cheese and brisket, ground beef, pork chili, chorizo and shredded beef brisket.

Pacheco thinks something about the open air and the smell of food attracts Americans to vending stands all over the country, he said. While such vendors primarily are visible in most metropolitan areas, Pacheco said, he has found his own niche in Ottawa.

“It’s doing really well,” Pacheco, who started selling burritos from the cart in September 2012, said. “I’ve always wanted to do the street vending thing.”

TAKING IT

TO THE STREETS

Nearly 31,000 street vendors operate in the United States, according to a market research report by IBISWorld. The industry experienced annual growth of 3.9 percent between 2008 and 2012, the report said.

Pacheco’s interest in street vending dates back to trips he made to Mexico with his parents and brother and sister, he said.

“When we were little, Mom and Dad would take us to Mexico, and we’d buy stuff off the street there,” Pacheco recalled. “It just always stuck in my mind how good the food tasted.”

Pacheco has tried to create a similar atmosphere with his vending stand, he said.

“I have a customer that buys his burritos here, ’cause he says it’s kinda like going to the ball park and getting a hotdog,” Pacheco said. “He said, ‘You can have a hotdog at home. But if you go to the ball park, for some reason it tastes better off the street.’”

A smiling Pacheco declined to say how many burritos he sells each day, but he indicated the number of customers fluctuates from day to day.

“I try to gauge what’s going on in the community — if school is in or school is out, that type of thing — in order to not bring too many or not bring enough [burritos],” Pacheco said. “At first it was just the regulars, you know, and now I guess with all the social media that tends to spread the word pretty quick. Some days people will be passing through town and stop, so you just never know. It’s about like the restaurant business, I guess.”

While Pacheco typically sells out each day by noon or a little after, he said, it’s not always easy to predict how the sales will go.

“It’s really hard to gauge because somebody may buy a sack of them, or I may sell one here, one there and just keep going like that.”

Tyson Harvey, a bus driver for the Ottawa school district, left Pacheco’s cart with a sack of beef burritos late Tuesday morning.

“I come here pretty regular, but I can’t always catch him,” Harvey said, smiling. “He sells out and he’s gone.”

Pacheco nodded his head.

“The owners of Brandywine [Liquors] have been very good to me, allowing me to use their parking lot,” Pacheco said. His burrito cart is parked on the west edge of the lot, close to Main Street. “A lot of times they’ll get people going in there and ask when I’ll be out again, when I’m not here.”

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

A 1972 graduate of Ottawa High School, Pacheco served in the U.S. Marines from 1973 to 1976, learning skills in telephone switchboard repair, electronics and telephone pole climbing that he parlayed into a nearly 33-year career in the telecommunications industry, first with Southwestern Bell, which eventually evolved into AT&T, he said.

Pacheco and his wife, Maria, have four children, Sam III, Jesse, Sara, who is currently serving in her 11th year as a U.S. Marine, and Veronica, who helps her parents at the restaurant, Pacheco said.

The couple have owned and operated Maria’s Mexican for the past 13 years, he said.

“We started the restaurant about nine years before I retired [from AT&T],” Pacheco said. “You know, we actually kind of fell into it by accident.”

Maria Pacheco, who originally is from Mexico, started working part-time in a bakery on Fifth Street, making Mexican food for lunches in the deli portion of the store, Pacheco said.

“It just kind of grew into something where we decided to look for our own place,” he said. “Up to that time, I had never even thought of the restaurant business. That’s how it evolved into the restaurant, then into buying the building on Main Street and now to this [vendor business].”

Pacheco’s vending cart is visible throughout the year — rain, snow or shine.

“I’m out here all year round,” Pacheco said. “I don’t miss too many days. If I can keep my fire lit, I’m usually out here. I’ve only missed three or four days.”

Most of those lost sales opportunities were chalked up to blizzard conditions last winter, he said.

“Once they get the parking lot cleared off [of snow], I’m here,” he said.

Pacheco has no plans of slowing down, he said.

“Maria’s [restaurant] is a little six-table place, but it and this [vending business] are enough to keep us busy,” Pacheco said.

The street vendor business has been a nice compliment to the restaurant, Pacheco said, and he plans to keep selling burritos from the cart in the future to customers like bus driver Harvey.

“I trust him as far as fixin’ stuff right — that’s the main reason I stop by,” Harvey said.

Pacheco is quick to give credit for the burritos to his wife.

“This wouldn’t happen without Maria,” Pacheco said. “She’s the one who rolls them. She makes them down there [at the restaurant], and I bring them out here to sell.”

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