The burrito king of Argentina

Argentine President-elect Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner wants more foreigners to invest in her country’s economy, which is growing by 8% annually. But Argentina’s recent history of runaway inflation, currency devaluations and huge foreign debt, coupled with the generally low reputation of its politicians, banks and courts, make outside investors and major corporations wary of putting their capital at risk.

Yet some young, agile entrepreneurs with more imagination than money are finding green pastures in the land of the Pampas. And one of them is a product of Calabasas: 24-year-old Jordan Metzner. He and his partners, Samuel Nadler and Chris Burns, have become the Cal-Mexican fast-food barons of Buenos Aires.

“We built [the California Burrito Co.] from the bottom up,” Metzner told me. With his long, black hair, good Spanish and understated mustache, he could pass for one of his hip Argentine customers. “And we make everything but the chips ourselves.”

The Argentine lunch and dinner diet mostly consists of steaks, empanadas, pizza and pasta -- all sit-down fare. The common California burrito is thus something of a culinary revolution in Argentina because you can eat it standing up. Instructions on how to eat one are even posted at the store: “Pull back the foil wrap as you consume the burrito.” No wonder one Argentine food critic called the revolution “muy fast food.”

Metzner’s company sells the California burrito Argentine-style, at a locally pricey $4.30 each, to almost 2,000 people a week out of a tiny storefront in a fading downtown pedestrian mall.

It all began when Metzner was a student at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. After spending a student year in Barcelona, where he sharpened his fluency in Spanish and cultivated a taste for the Latino culture, he decided that this was the culture in which he wanted to start his first business. But the skyrocketing value of the euro vis-a-vis the dollar made raising capital in Europe too difficult, so he settled on Buenos Aires.

Metzner and his partners wrote up a business plan and raised $100,000 to open their store in April 2006. The business now grosses close to $400,000 a year.

In conceiving his business, Metzner says he “took a look at Chipotle,” the Denver-based meat-wrap restaurant chain that is thriving across the United States. Before Chipotle, good burritos were mostly found in Mexican American mom-and-pop shops in the Southwest U.S.

Food experts believe the burrito -- perhaps a version of an enchilada -- originated about 60 years ago in Tijuana or Juarez, Mexico. But rather than spread southward, as might be expected, the burrito took a turn north, and today the classic savory filling in a wheat tortilla is easier to find in Los Angeles and San Francisco than in Mexico City.

Metzner concluded that Chipotle’s success owed much to its menu of burritos filled with a seemingly infinite variety of ingredients, so he and his partners came up with, in theory, 15,000 handmade combinations. The Argentine version -- before Metzner’s store opened, “burrito” was slang for “pants pocket” -- is less spicy than its northern counterpart, with even the “super-hot” sauce offered at the restaurant being warmly amiable. Argentines just don’t do picante -- yet.

Every day, young businesspeople, the vast majority of them under 30, begin lining up outside the California Burrito Co. at 12:30 p.m. The wait for a table can be 15 minutes, so Metzner plans to add a takeout window soon. The restaurant is also popular among the 24,000 or so American and British expatriates living in Buenos Aires who are attracted by the city’s low rents and nightclub life.

Like the American and British traders of the early 1800s, who sold machine-made ponchos to gauchos, Metzner and his partners are displaying an entrepreneurial shrewdness at satisfying local needs without help from big corporations. Metzner is already talking about expanding to Montevideo, Uruguay, the country next door. Then, who knows?

South America is an opportunity-filled continent whose collective economy remains barely the size of California’s. Metzner’s success suggests that parts of it are open to the right innovation at the right time by the right bright minds -- and the burrito seems a perfect fast-food fit.

Marc B. Haefele is a commentator for KPCC-FM (89.3) and writes for Citybeat, Citywatch and Nomada magazine of Buenos Aires. He just returned from a trip to Argentina.