Chain Innovators: FREEBIRDS World Burrito

Walk in to a FREEBIRDS World Burrito for the first time and you just might be hit with sensory overload. The concept, founded in 1987 and acquired by the Tavistock Restaurant Group in 2007, is all about providing a way-different sort of fast-casual dining experience.

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FreebirdsFrom the '60s and '70s music and peace, love and burritos slogans on the walls to the uniform-free staffers to the burrito-gripping Statue of Liberty replica astride a Harley Davidson in every store — FREEBIRDS aims for laidback eccentricity.

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It's an attitude and ambiance that resonates with Baby Boomers and youngsters alike, says Jeff Carl, chief marketing officer, and that's part of how FREEBIRDS differentiates itself from the fast-casual burrito segment giants. More importantly, Carl says, is food quality and variety. FREEBIRDS preps everything fresh on-site: slow-roasting its carnitas and marinating its grass-fed beef and all-natural hormone-free chicken; making all sauces and salsas; and fire-grilling fresh ears of corn for its corn salsa. Freedom of choice is big; four different tortilla flavors are offered: spinach, cayenne, wheat and flour as are eight sauces and salsas, from "bad ass barbecue" to pico de gallo to "death" sauce. More than 15 additional toppings fill out the 30-ft. service line, which Carl describes as "Chipotle on steroids."

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Service is distinctive, too. "When you enter the service queue, a 'roller' [crew member] helps you through the entire process, describing ingredients, suggesting great flavor combinations and building your perfectly customized burrito. You don't get handed off down a line of scoopers and ploppers. You get a custom tailored, fun experience. That's not normal!"

Fast Facts

  • Year founded: 2003
  • Headquarters: Emeryville, Calif.
  • Menu specialties: Gourmet burritos
  • Service model: Fast-casual
  • Ownership: The Tavistock Group's Tavistock Restaurants Division
  • Units: 48 (all company owned, franchising starting this summer)
  • Projected 2011 growth: Number of units expected to increase by 50 percent
  • Key expansion markets: Texas, Oklahoma, California
  • Typical location: End cap
  • Average unit size: 2,000–2,800 sq. ft.
  • Average kitchen space: 900–1,100 sq. ft.
  • Average check: $10
  • Total equipment investment per unit: $100,000+
Key Players
  • President: Bryan Lockwood
  • Vice President, Culinary & Purchasing: Steve Byrne
  • Vice President, Development: Mike Lingor
  • Chief Marketing Officer: Jeff Carl
  • Smallwares & Equipment: Edward Don
  • Food Distributor: U.S. Foodservice
  • Architect: CMS New York
  • Key Consultant: Duke Marketing
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