Mobile eatery rolls out ‘Ver-Mexican’ cuisine
MIDDLEBURY — Kristin and Damian Bittrolf trace their roots back to Ireland, Lithuania and Portugal, and more recently, to Cape Cod and Boston, Mass.
Six days a week, though, the couple dishes up pieces of another culture entirely: They sell burritos from Green-go’s, their food cart in Frog Hollow Alley, just off of Main Street in downtown Middlebury.
The two make no claims to authenticity — but they say that’s not necessarily what their customers are looking for. Damian said they have coined their own term for this hybrid cuisine: “Ver-Mexican.”
Even the store’s name — a play on the Spanish “gringo,” sometimes used as a derogatory term for a white person — is conscious of this.
“We’re just a couple of white kids making Mexican food,” said Damian.
But the biggest complaints they’ve heard so far are from people who tried to find Green-go’s on a day when they weren’t out making burritos. Their chicken, beef and bean burrito choices have gotten compliments from Southern Californians, Texans and even a couple of Mexican people — all excited to find burritos so far north of the border.
The Bittrolfs, who ran the Bobcat Café in Bristol from 2003 until 2005 and have been working in Middlebury since then, opened their burrito cart on Exchange Street in late June. Later, once they’d gotten the necessary permission, they moved to their current spot in Frog Hollow Alley. That spot looks across to what they hope is the future of the business: an empty storefront at the bottom of the Holm building overlooking the waterfall.
Initially, the hope was to open inside right off the bat.
“The first time I saw the space, I could see my husband cutting vegetables by the back window,” said Kristin, pointing across to the first-floor space.
It soon became clear, however, that a lot of overhead was necessary for the type of business they were planning. The Bittrolfs are hoping to keep their growth true to the “green” part of their name, which would have meant buying equipment that is more expensive than the standard.
As the initial investment cost ticked upward, the Bittrolfs decided to look into other options. The obvious choice was to start with a food cart, which, after the price of the cart, would save them the overhead cost of renting a space and give them the chance to work out their burrito strategy.
“We thought, if we put this together and it fails, we’ve lost $150,000 or so,” said Kristin. “We figured (the cart) would be a safe start.”
So they headed to Virginia to pick up the used cart they had found online. Almost immediately, the business took off.
While the two have a combined 50 years of experience in the food industry, running a food cart was a new experience.
“It’s like a freestyle event,” said Damian. “There are always variables that you don’t count on.”
There’s the weather, and making sure there is enough propane to power the stoves, and the limitations of working in a very small space.
Since they got used to the new style of cooking, though, the two have found that there are definite upsides to working the food cart. They are their own bosses now, and set their own hours.
“Working with my wife is really great,” said Damian. “We can almost talk without talking — she knows when the spatula hits the table, the burrito’s coming to her.”
And after working behind the scenes with set recipes in kitchens for years, Damian said he’s finally able to cater to individual tastes with each burrito he makes.
“I want to know each customer, to make them feel like they’re at home,” he said. “It’s like I’m their personal burrito chef.”
The Bittrolfs said that because they aren’t paying rent, the burritos they sell during their 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. shifts (8 to 5 on Saturdays) are more than paying their living expenses, with some left over to kick back into the business.
Some of that will go toward putting solar panels on the top of the cart, which will allow them to wean the small business partially off of the propane they currently use to power the cart.
GROWING THE BUSINESS
Recently, the couple has also been approved to raise money on kickstarter.com, which pitches itself as “a new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors.” At the site, investors pledge money toward a project, but nobody has to actually put up the money unless the project gets enough pledges to reach its financial goal.
The Bittrolfs have set the bar high — once the project goes live, they will be asking for $150,000 in order to secure and retrofit the space in the Holm Building, which they hope to do before next April. They will offer incentives to those who pledge — depending on the amount pledged, people will get t-shirts, bumper stickers, free burritos and, for big spenders, a spot on the restaurant’s “burrito board,” members of which will determine the restaurant’s décor and pick new menu items.
And though both admitted that the business could be far more profitable with just the cart than it is likely to be with the addition of a storefront, adding flexibility to the menu and seating for their customers is what the two are looking for — although they said they won’t retire the cart. They hope to make the store a place where people want to spend time, even if they’re not eating a meal.
“We want to be a central part of the community,” said Kristin. “Encourage people to come downtown.”
The couple will be working on using local ingredients in their food — a bumper crop of hot peppers locally has them making and freezing hot sauce to use during the winter.
And whatever happens, Kristin and Damian said the business has been a rewarding step in their professional careers.
“At a certain point in the restaurant business, either you have a really good job, or it’s time to start out on your own,” said Kristin. “We feel we’ve hit the mark on this, and we have the support to keep going.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.