Burritos on the move
Alvarez plans mobile food operation for Burrito Mexpress
HUMBOLDT — Joe Alvarez will soon be taking his increasingly popular quick-serve Tex-Mex restaurant on the road to places like Algona and Fort Dodge.
Alvarez, a native of Mason City, opened Burrito Mexpress in Humboldt in January of 2018. Since that time, Alvarez has built a loyal customer base in a city of less than 5,000 residents. Alvarez reported that he serves about 150 customers per day.
At Burrito Mexpress, 1312 10th Ave. N., customers can build their own burrito to their specifications by picking from a wide selection of ingredients.
“Our flagship product is our BMEX burrito,” said Alvarez. “That’s on a 12-inch tortilla. You get to build it the way you want it.”
Customers can choose from two types of rice — Spanish or silantro lime; two kinds of beans — Mexican style pinto bean or a seasoned black bean; and four different meat offerings: fajita chicken, Tex-Mex ground beef, smoked pork carnitas or a carne asada style steak.
After demonstrating sustained success in Humboldt, Alvarez had the vision to offer his menu from a food trailer that he could move around the area.
He was also considering opening a second restaurant in Algona.
Those ideas came to him in the spring. But there was a problem with that timing — COVID-19.
“Right before the shutdown due to the coronavirus, I was literally a phone call away from opening a second location in Algona,” Alvarez said. “I have customers from Algona and Fort Dodge that drive here daily just to eat. Algona was going to be my second location and that went kapooey.”
Not to be deterred, in recent weeks, Alvarez purchased a high-end 18-foot food trailer that he plans to debut in the coming weeks.
“With restrictions and social distancing and carryout being a mainstay, I’m going to dive in with a food trailer and be mobile,” Alvarez said. “So I can go to Algona a few weeks a month and Fort Dodge a few weeks a month.”
Alvarez said mobile food services have been trending in recent years.
“In the last 10 years, I have seen a trend from the dine-in industry to the quick-service industry and in the last two to four years, the explosion of food trucks and the novelty of having home-cooked food (from a mobile location) has come about,” Alvarez said.
The food trailer will carry all of the core menu items. Some specialty items will only be available at the Humboldt restaurant, Alvarez said.
Alvarez anticipates the Burrito Mexpress mobile food service to be operational in 30 to 60 days.
From the moment Alvarez was born, he was part of a restaurant family.
His parents owned La Hacienda in Mason City from 1979-2002.
“I was born in 1980,” Alvarez said. “So I was literally born and raised in the restaurant business.”
A picture exists that shows Alvarez as a child washing silverware in stainless steel bowl from his high-chair.
Alvarez lived in Iowa until the third grade when his family moved to Dallas, Texas. That’s where he finished high school.
Following high school, he moved back to Mason City to work for his grandpa, Victor Martinez.
His grandpa was an inspiring figure for him.
“He could interact with a 6-year-old or an 80-year-old,” Alvarez said. “He remembered everybody’s names. Being open for that long, he fed two generations of families and they all kind of treated him like family, too.”
Alvarez said he learned through his grandpa the value of customer service.
“It’s unmatched,” Alvarez said of his grandfather, who passed away in 2015.
In addition to helping his family open multiple restaurants, Alvarez gained experience in managing Applebee’s and Perkins in Mason City.
Eventually a job opportunity landed Alvarez in the Humboldt area.
In 2013, Alvarez accepted a job selling diesel fuel and propane for W&H Coop in Humboldt.
“I did that for four years and it was a great job,” Alvarez said. “But I wanted to get back to my roots.”
Initially, Alvarez was just going to run his restaurant out of a food truck.
He asked the owner of the building if he could rent out an overhead garage space for the truck.
But then the owner suggested he instead open a full restaurant in the front of the building.
“It was an office space,” Alvarez said. “And when I looked at the layout, I envisioned what Burrito Mexpress is today. Knocking down walls — it was an overhaul to make an office space into an open, operational kitchen.”
Being in the restaurant business, Alvarez said he’s had to learn to be a quick thinker.
“You have to be a problem solver, a think on your feet type to be successful in the restaurant business,” Alvarez said. “If something breaks, spills or burns, you have to figure out how to quickly manage that situation.”
The pandemic presented its share of challenges when restaurants had to close for several weeks between March and May.
“During the shutdown we absolutely had to evolve with the changes,” Alvarez said. “We offered call ahead carryout, curbside pickup and local delivery. There was a good four weeks of about 30 to 40 percent loss in sales. And then when people got sick of cooking at home, they started calling again.”
The restaurant has a seating capacity of 36.
“Being a quick-serve style restaurant, our dine-in only makes up about 30 percent of our overall gross,” Alvarez said.
He’s enjoyed doing business in Humboldt.
“I consider Humboldt my home now,” Alvarez said. “People from Humboldt will call me a Humboldt transplant because this is where I’m staying.”
Preparing a delicious meal for people is one of the great joys Alvarez gets to experience.
“I have a love for cooking,” Alvarez said. “At home, I cook just about everything. I also have a love for watching someone try my food for the first time and watching them roll their eyes back and tilt their head back in awe of such a good bite of food. Every time it gets me.
“To serve quality food consistently with great customer service is something I am inherited with I suppose. I tell my staff if you wouldn’t serve it to your kids or your mom, don’t serve it to our customers. So our level of quality is always on top of mind.”
Depending on the season, Alvarez employs between five and eight workers. One of his assistants, Danielle Walters has been with the restaurant since it opened.
Alvarez has hired three employees within the last two weeks. He plans to hire two to three more when the restaurant’s mobile business goes live.
Burrito Mexpress is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.