February 1, 2007

Alum Brings Burritos to C-Town

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“This was hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Jeff Mayer Hotel MMH ’05 as he finished stirring cilantro into a large bowl of avocado slices. No, Mayer was not talking about the guacamole he was in the process of making, but rather the founding of the restaurant in which he would serve it. That Burrito Place, Mayer’s brainchild, opened for business last week.

Mayer, who grew up in Southern California, got his undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado. After graduation, Mayer spent some time in consulting, first at Arthur Anderson and then at another firm. The life of a consultant, according to Mayer, is ever changing, but the one thing that remained static for him was his frequenting of restaurants.

“The one thing that was consistent was that I was traveling and eating in all these amazing restaurants,” Mayer said. “I would always be in hotels, and I would always dine.”

Mayer, who always had an entrepreneurial spirit, realized that dining might make a good business. So, Mayer applied to the School of Hotel Administration with the idea of acquiring the tools he would need to open a restaurant.

In the beginning, Mayer’s wish for a restaurant remained a vague dream, as he had no specifics in mind. Yet, one night, a drunken craving generated more than extra calories — it spawned an idea.

“I was drunk one night, eating pizza at Mamas T’s, and it was like, man, I would kill for a burrito right now,” Mayer said.

The friends with whom Mayer was eating did not cast his drunken comment aside. Instead, they encouraged Mayer to follow through with the idea, and they offered him financial support.

Mayer used all of Cornell’s resources to get his brainchild off the ground. He went over his ideas with professors and raised money from Cornell alumni. When it came to selecting the food he would offer, Mayer utilized the educational tools that Cornell had provided him.

“We used regression analysis to determine the best salsa,” Mayer said.

In addition to a lot of help from Cornell, Mayer got by with more than a little help from his friends. He and a group of classmates spent six days eating at 30 burrito restaurants. After the six-day binge, Mayer said, he felt extremely “lethargic,” but he was also more knowledgeable about the makeup of the elusive perfect burrito.

It took Mayer a year-and-a-half after his graduation to get the property lease and the restaurant opened. When it finally did open, it did so to the surprise of many Cornellians, who did not even know the restaurant was coming.

“The coolest thing is everyone is like, ‘it wasn’t here and then it was,’” said Mayer.

Mayer’s Southern California background is evidenced by the restaurant’s décor and the food’s taste. Alternative rock streams from the restaurant’s speakers, and boarding stickers decorate its walls. The food itself, says Mayer, is a more “Americanized” California burrito style, as opposed to the traditional Mexican style. As for the restaurant’s colloquial name, says Mayer, “it’s the nickname it would get anywhere.”

Of course, the larger question is always will the restaurant survive? Mayer seems confident that the burrito’s singularity in a town that houses numerous Asian restaurants and several pizzerias will be enough to support its success. As for its first week, says Mayer, his sales “have been blowing away my projections.”

Of course, the best predictor of a Collegetown restaurant’s success is the thoughts of college students themselves.

Emily Sauer ’07 says she is “kind of disappointed that [she] couldn’t eat” in the restaurant but that the food was “good” and that she will be a frequent visitor because it’s “kind of on the healthy side.”

Justin Green ’07, was more effusive about the new restaurant: “Collegetown really needed Mexican food … [and it] is really good.”

Both students, however, were disappointed that the guacamole costs two dollars extra.