- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

It’s always standing room only at John Rider’s place. Mr. Rider operates one of the hottest lunch spots in downtown Washington, a stainless-steel burrito cart at 15th and K streets NW. Everyone comes here — K Street lobbyists, their secretaries, furniture movers, landscapers, men in suits and men in cutoff jeans, not to mention the occasional tourist.

At times the line can be a dozen or more deep. Customers say the vegetarian burritos — just beans, rice and cheese — are worth the wait.

A customer orders one, spends a few minutes chatting with Mr. Rider as the order is prepared, then pays Mr. Rider’s wife, Ronnie, who stands beneath the cart’s green awning and collects the money.

The customers usually carry their food back to their desks. Some eat in a nearby park.

“They’re all good people. You get to know them. As time goes on, you don’t even have to ask what they want. You just know,” Mr. Rider says.

The Honest to Goodness Burritos cart is legendary.

In the mid-1990s, lawyer James Tiu quit his fancy downtown firm to open the cart. Mr. Tiu became a modern-day folk hero, an inspiration for countless K Street office drones itching to escape their cubicles for the entrepreneurial life.

Late last year, Mr. Tiu gave up the cart and moved to West Virginia, where he opened a cafe. In January, Mr. Rider took over Mr. Tiu’s spot at 15th and K.

Mr. Rider graduated from Johnson & Wales University, a cooking school in Providence, R.I., in 1979. Early in his career, he and his wife moved around the country.

At a restaurant in Atlantic City, N.J., he cooked for entertainers Tom Jones and Liberace. At a Houston country club, he prepared meals for the first President Bush.

The Riders came to the Washington area about 18 years ago. Mr. Rider has been executive chef at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington and has run his own catering business and coffee shop.

In late 1996 he opened his first cart, serving coffee at North Capitol and E streets NW, near the building that houses C-SPAN and the Fox News Channel’s Washington bureau.

“I’m an entrepreneur. I like to do my own thing. I don’t like having to have a meeting to change things,” says Mr. Rider, who is still boyish and energetic at 45.

He still operates the coffee cart. Each weekday, he spends his mornings serving coffee and his afternoons serving burritos.

Yesterday his day began as most weekdays do.

He wakes at 5 a.m. and gets ready for work. He departs his Northern Virginia home about 30 minutes later.

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sneakers, Mr. Rider travels to a nearby restaurant, where he picks up the food he will serve at the burrito cart. He doesn’t prepare his own food because it’s too much trouble, he says.

Mr. Rider doesn’t transport his own carts, either. Instead, he pays someone to pick them up each day and drop them off at his usual corners.

Mr. Rider works the coffee cart from about 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Then he heads to 15th and K, where he opens the burrito cart at roughly 10:30.

Business is slow until about 12:10 p.m., when a line begins to form.

Customers say there is a protocol to ordering from Mr. Rider.

Kelly Dalton, a public-policy specialist for a K Street law firm, compares him to the “Seinfeld” Soup Nazi — only Mr. Rider is much friendlier.

You don’t place your order at once, says Ms. Dalton, who brought four interns to the cart yesterday.

Before they left the office, Ms. Dalton briefed the young people on the rules: Tell Mr. Rider what kind of tortilla you want while you are still in line. Then, when you get to the window, tell him what you want in your burrito.

Only novices try to give the whole order at once, she says.

Mr. Rider offers five kinds of tortillas: flour, wheat, spinach, chili and sun-dried tomato. When he ticks off the list to newcomers at the height of the lunch rush, it all sounds like one word.

“Flourwheatspinachchillisundriedtomato?”

A sign above the counter spells out the seven categories of sauces he offers: mildest, mild, barbecue, medium, hot, extra hot and on-fire. Names for finished products include “Jump Up and Kiss Me,” “Arizona Gunslinger” and “Dave’s Insanity.”

Prices range from $3.50 to $5.75, depending on the size of the burrito. Extras such as sour cream and guacamole cost 25 cents.

Mr. Rider’s hands are in constant motion during the two-hour lunch rush. Tortillas are steamed. Rice is scooped. Beans are spread. Cheese is sprinkled.

About 2:30, having served about 130 customers, Mr. Rider closes the burrito cart and heads home. He will take the leftover food with him and throw it out.

Beans, rice and tortillas are so inexpensive there’s no point in saving them, Mr. Rider says. Plus, he insists on starting with fresh ingredients every morning.

The person who transports his carts will pick them up and take them to a depot where they are thoroughly cleaned every weeknight.

When Mr. Rider arrives home, he exercises. He says he stays in shape so he can keep up with the long lines.

On most evenings he’s heading for bed by 8:30.

“He jumps out of bed every morning at 5 and keeps going all day. He has more energy than anyone I know,” Mrs. Rider says.

Vending is a good business, according to Mr. Rider. He pays the District a portion of his sales tax — roughly $125 a month. There are also some small permit fees, but he has little overhead, and gets weekends and holidays off.

Mr. Rider doesn’t know how much longer he wants to run the carts.

“I’ll move on when something else presents itself,” he says.

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