Burrito business booming for BR-based Izzo’s

Izzo’s Illegal Burrito is on a roll.

Last week, the Baton Rouge-based chain opened a location in the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk. A Hammond location opened earlier this month, and the chain’s first Ascension Parish location is set to open in the fall in Prairieville.

That fits with the company’s growth plans, said Ozzie Fernandez, who co-founded Izzo’s with Gary Kovacs. Izzo’s plans to open three or four restaurants a year.

“I think five years ago, you probably would have heard me say I wanted 100 stores,” said Fernandez, sitting back in the company offices off Highland Road in Baton Rouge. “But our philosophy now is we would rather run 25 great operating stores, than 75 to 100 mediocre stores. We want to keep true to our name and brand.”

Izzo’s is looking to continue its growth, eyeing potential locations across south Louisiana, including Slidell and Houma. But the Crescent City is getting special attention.

“New Orleans is a real hotbed for us,” Fernandez said. “We’re actively searching in Mid-City, Uptown and the CBD.”

Kovacs said Izzo’s wants to continue to dominate the market in south Louisiana and Mississippi. “Ozzie and I are a good combination,” he said. “He’s the best partner I ever had.”

Izzo’s has become famous for its hand-rolled burritos filled with meat, beans, cheese, rice and other ingredients. Hungry diners can buy massive “illegal burritos,” which rival the size of a small Chihuahua. The chain serves other staples of casual Mexican dining, such as tacos, nachos and quesadillas.

Thanks to a commitment to using quality ingredients and cooking everything from marinated meats to corn in the restaurants, Izzo’s has carved out a niche for itself locally in the fast-casual Mexican dining segment. While other national chains that specialize in the same cuisine, such as Moe’s Southwest Grill and Qdoba Mexican Grill, have shut down Baton Rouge locations over the past few years, Izzo’s has thrived. The Prairieville location will be its 16th restaurant. While Fernandez would not disclose exact sales figures for the private business, he said the chain posted a double-digit percentage change in sales growth over 2012.

“Our culture is way better than the average fast-food concept,” said Kovacs, who is based in Houston and serves as chairman of the chain. “I think you can tell by the quality of personnel we have. From the kids rolling burritos and washing dishes, they believe in what we are and what we stand for.”

The roots of Izzo’s go back about 14 years, when Fernandez and Kovacs were both working as managers at Pignetti’s, a fine-dining restaurant in Houston. Fernandez, who went to culinary school and had served as a manager and consultant to several restaurants, was ready to move on and open his own business. He saw that Mexican restaurants specializing in overstuffed burritos were doing well out west. “The build-your-own, Subway model was very appealing to me,” Fernandez said.

Kovacs said Fernandez, who was in his early 20s, didn’t have the money to open a restaurant, but he had a strong drive and a lot of ethics. “I had restaurants that cost $2 million to open, so I figure with five or six or seven Izzo’s, I could spread my risk, based on what the annual sales would be,” he said. “I felt really good about the process.”

His hometown of Houston was oversaturated with burrito restaurants, so Fernandez started looking elsewhere. Baton Rouge kept coming up as a potential location because several of Fernandez’s friends in Houston had ties to the capital region. Plus, Kovacs’ son had just enrolled at LSU. “The stars just kind of aligned,” Fernandez said.

In 2000, Fernandez came to look at a potential site for the restaurant at the University View Shopping Center, which was under construction at the intersection of Burbank Drive and Parker Boulevard. “It was still dirt, but I inquired about the spot and the rest is history,” he said.

At the time, Baton Rouge had plenty of popular full-service Mexican restaurants, such as Ninfa’s, Superior Grill and La Carreta. But there weren’t places to get a quick burrito and chips.

The first Izzo’s opened in July 2001. The name came from a backward version of Fernandez’s first name — minus the E — and the dishes were drawn from family recipes. “Except my grandmother would probably cook them with a lot more lard and bacon fat,” he said.

To stay true to those principles of home-cooked meals, every day, Izzo’s employees chop cases of fresh tomatoes for salsa and pico de gallo, roast hundreds of ears of corn and braise pork shoulders for three hours.

“It’s almost like a full-service restaurant in terms of executing the product,” Fernandez said. “We’re doing things kind of the old-school way but adapted to more of today’s palate and dietary needs.”

To meet those current dietary needs, all of Izzo’s beans are vegetarian-friendly (meaning they aren’t cooked with chicken stock) and the chain offers brown rice and whole-wheat tortillas.

Offering fresh ingredients and healthy choices has led Mexican restaurants to experience increased sales over the past few years, said Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer and senior vice president of strategy for Market Force Information, a business and consumer research firm. From 2010 to 2012, fast-casual Mexican restaurants saw U.S. sales increase 13.5 percent to $5 billion.

“There’s a taste and cultural awakening in the Mexican food category,” Eden-Harris said. “People are enthusiastic about new flavors and combinations. It’s a popular cuisine.”

Eden-Harris said she expects sales for chains like Izzo’s will continue to improve because they fit in with the lifestyle of the millennial generation. “They grew up eating out a lot more,” she said.

The key to Izzo’s success is staying true to the pledge of offering generous portions of quality food at a great value, in a fun and happy atmosphere.

“We’re still two guys with a dream who started something 14 years ago and have not deviated one iota,” Kovacs said. “This is still the same idea we started at a kitchen table on a napkin.”

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.