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Enjoy Magazine

Juan Mean Burrito

03/19/2013 11:52AM ● By Kerri Regan

Burrito Bandito Celebrates 10 Years in the North State

Story: Kerri Regan Photos: Bret Christensen

Burrito Bandito was inspired by one of life’s basic needs: A perfect mix of meat, beans and veggies, accessorized with a smidge of sour cream, a drizzle of salsa and a whole lot of guacamole, tightly swaddled into a flour tortilla bigger than your face.

“I knew there had to be a place you could get a burrito the way you wanted it,” says Paul LaBarbera of Redding.

Burrito Bandito has evolved from one tiny shop into five Shasta County restaurants, where famished folks flock for burritos, tacos and burrito bowls prepared right before their eyes.

Paul and Sheryl LaBarbera’s burrito empire began with a tiny lunch truck, which they’d converted from a trailer previously used in their whitewater rafting business. They originally used it as a concession stand at fairs and as a lunch truck in Burney.

“It was like Thanksgiving every morning. We’d make three kinds of cookies, two or three kinds of burritos, sandwiches, salads, soups and a special every day,” says LaBarbera, who has worked in the restaurant industry since he was 13. “Our kids used to get out of school five minutes before the lunch bell — in the snow, half the time — and come help my wife with the lunch rush.”

When they moved down to Redding, they hired one employee and set up four tables at their Airport Road restaurant. “We were here from 6 am until 9 pm. She did the register, I made a mess, she cleaned up, I cooked,” he says.

They were flabbergasted at the response. “It lasted 10 days and we had to buy more tables,” he says.

Halloween marks Burrito Bandito’s 10-year anniversary, and many of their 65 employees have worked there for years, including Sheryl’s sister, who has been their bookkeeper since the beginning. The restaurants in Redding, Anderson, Red Bluff and Chico are managed by three of the LaBarberas’ four sons — Michael, Daniel and Matthew — and Luke Magnuson, who has been a family friend since he was a kindergartner in Burney. Their other son, John, is a mechanic. “I burnt him out at fairs pretty young,” LaBarbera says.

For now, they don’t have their eyes on another location. “Right now, I’d like to get through this economy thing,” LaBarbera says. “It’s been two years since we’ve raised our prices, and the prices we pay for ingredients are going up, so the margin is more thin. Everybody’s facing that.” Even in the toughest times, though, the LaBarberas do what they can to help local and worldwide charitable causes.

They’ve looked into starting a franchise, but “I think you’d lose what we’ve got,” he says. “I don’t want to be a Taco Bell.”

Each restaurant has its own personality, but they carry many of the same traits: Whimsical wall decor in bright shades of turquoise and orange and purple, vibrant murals hand painted by Jeff Crank, and an impressive array of hot sauces available for purchase. The flagship restaurant has 163 varieties. “My wife about fell over and cried when I ordered $1,000 in hot sauce,” he says. “And yes, you really do have to sign waivers for some of it.”

These days, the LaBarberas, who met at Los Gatos High School, spend less time managing restaurants and more time playing with grandchildren. “We have five, but we need five more,” he says.

Sitting in his Airport Road restaurant, LaBarbera said he’s proud of the loyal fans that the company has earned since he was branded “Juan Mean Burrito” a decade ago (when his gray hair was still jet black). Someone recently bragged about the place on a Eureka radio station, and “five times a month, people say, ‘My family is here from out of town and we’ve got to come here.’”

The secret to his success? “Good employees are the biggest key. I’ve gotta brag on my employees,” LaBarbera says. “A smiling face and sincere heart goes a long way. The food’s good and the value is pretty good, too.

“Between my wife, my employees and my kids, it’s hard to go wrong. I’m somewhere in the middle and I just got lucky.” 2485 Notre Dame Blvd. • Chico • (530) 342-2584 3365 Placer Street • Redding • (530) 229-9068 8938 Airport Road • Redding • (530) 222-6640 2805 East Center Street • Anderson • (530) 378-1400 525 Adobe Road • Red Bluff • (530) 528-8226