- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

Northern Virginia soon will get its first taste of jungle noises, secret passwords and Pop Tart days when California Tortilla opens this summer.

The Mexican eatery, known for zany promotions, has signed a franchise development deal for 15 locations in Northern Virginia by 2008. The first two locations are scheduled to open in Clarendon by late June and in Fairfax by mid-July, says Bob Phillips, president of the Rockville company.

The six-restaurant chain, which opened its first location in Bethesda in 1995, has built its customer base on wacky promotions. The off-the-wall antics include:

• Jungle Noise Day: Customers make jungle noises for free chips and salsa.

• Monday Night Mystery Price Burrito Wheel: Customers spin a wheel to determine how much their burrito will cost — from 75 cents off to free.

• On rainy days: The company sends an e-mail to about 15,000 customers revealing a secret password, which can be used to get free chips and salsa that day.

• Pop Tart Day: California Tortilla gives out Pop Tarts one day during the year, for no apparent reason.

This month, the company is asking customers to create its slogan. The winning entry will be used in the restaurants and in the company’s advertising. The winning slogan creator will get free lunch or dinner for two, every week for a year.

The marketing gimmicks were a way to drum up business in the beginning, said Pam Felix, co-founder and marketing director.

“The goofier and the more fun we had, the more business we got,” she said. “These promotions … helped our business grow to a point where our stores are averaging well over a million dollars a year.”

The company tries to have a special promotion day every month.

“We created a unique culture — we have a connection with the customer and a spunky atmosphere,” Mr. Phillips said.

California Tortilla began its franchise program last year and has two franchise locations in College Park and the District.

There also are plans to open franchise restaurants in Cleveland Park in the summer and two in Germantown and Frederick, Md., in the fall.

The company plans to grow “slowly and responsibly,” Mr. Phillips said. “Our primary goal is to find fabulous locations and fabulous franchisees.”

Mr. Phillips says the chain’s expansion will be close to home but is likely to include Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

Shopping in Vegas

The District has sent a delegation for the sixth time to the International Council of Shopping Centers’ annual spring convention, being held this week in Las Vegas.

The cast of about 20 officials, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams, will showcase the District’s neighborhoods and available properties in hopes of luring big-box retailers, grocery stores, men’s and women’s clothing retailers and home furnishings stores to the city.

D.C. officials have 50 meetings set up with potential retailers and developers during the four-day event, which began yesterday.

The ICSC conference is the industry’s biggest event. About 40,000 attendees are expected this year.

Donna De Marco can be reached at 202/636-4884. Retail & Hospitality runs every other Monday.

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