Posted: November 01, 2009

Small Biz: Frozen burrito biz lands believers, backers

Mike Taylor

Denver is already the cradle of the giant burrito, with Chipotle, Qdoba, Chez Jose, Bocaza and Illegal Pete's all emerging here in the early 1990s.

Boulder's Phil Anson aims to make this the mecca of the frozen burrito, too.

Less than a year after securing financial backing, Anson's natural and organic EVOL Burritos can be found in 1,000 stores. His 6,000-square-foot Boulder plant is churning out 20,000 burritos a day. By year's end Anson expects to be in 2,500 stores nationwide.

"Ours is a very similar consumer to those (giant burrito) brands, but it's a different usage," says Anson, 31. "We're looking to capture those people who want a premium burrito experience for a completely different usage occasion: Running out the door, you've got your cup of coffee and your burrito and you're on the road."

Originally from Los Angeles, Anson studied photojournalism at the University of Denver while working nights as a chef. He's also an avid rock climber, and his struggle to make it in the food industry has resembled an inch-by-inch ascent up an unforgiving rock face, starting in 2001 when it occurred to him that he might be able to sell burritos to climbers entering Boulder's Eldorado Canyon.

"I tried it a few times, and it didn't work," Anson says. "And then I took them out to construction sites. That didn't work either. People were totally confused - this white kid who spoke Spanish trying to sell them burritos."

Anson tried selling at sporting events and other venues. "It was pitiful," he says. "But I ended up at the Eldorado Corner Market. I saw a couple other local brands of packaged burritos. I went back to my house and whipped up a few ink-jet labels and some burritos and brought them over and built a little price list and made my first sale."

Anson eventually built his Phil's Fresh Foods brand of sandwiches, burritos and dips to annual revenues of $1.5 million. "But it was still sort of a one-man show," he says. "It was brutal. I pulled all-nighters. I slept on bags of pinto beans. I basically devoted my entire 20s to this business."

He wanted to take his business to the next level, but by the time he figured out how to pitch his business plan to angel investors and venture-capital firms, it was too late.

"The economy was totally shot out," he says. "The era of these three-and four- and five-times revenue acquisitions in natural-foods brands had kind of subsided."

Or so he thought. Enter Brendan Synnott and Tom Spier, both 31 like Anson and former roommates at Vanderbilt University. Synnott had founded Bare Naked Granola in 2002 and brought Spier on as a partner two years later. They built it into a $50 million brand before selling it to Kellogg in August 2007.

Synnott and Spier agreed to back Anson, and by March they were laying out plans to rebrand and go national with EVOL (LOVE spelled backwards) Burritos.

"To me, it's about two things," Synnott says. "One is the market opportunity. People all across America love going to restaurants and getting a delicious burrito. People all across America love going to restaurants and getting a delicious pizza. People seem to have figured out how to sell pretty tasty frozen pizzas. People have not figured out how to sell a delicious frozen burrito that replicates the in-restaurant experience. And that is what got me excited.

"The second thing is just about Phil personally. He'd been in business eight years, and he's fought the fight. He's not a quitter. And I think with better infrastructure, with more guidance, with some sales and marketing expertise he's in a position to operate a pretty successful business."

Anson's background as a chef and his Boulder orientation invite comparisons to giant burrito magnate Steve Ells, the Chipotle founder and former chef who grew up in Boulder.

"I know him, but he doesn't know me," Anson says, laughing. "I've seen him speak a couple times and definitely followed his career. Aside from the fact that he's a multimillionaire and I'm not, we've been living parallel lives in the burrito world. We both have a passion for fine dining, and both never thought we'd end up in the burrito business like this."

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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