Before Moe’s, before Salsarita’s, there was Barberitos Southwestern Grille and Cantina. Granted, the fast and fresh Tex-Mex eatery was founded within a year of its counterparts, but it did blaze the trail for madeto-order counter service Southwestern fare in the Southeast.
And within the past four months, the eatery has made its way into the Midlands, with local franchise owners Mike Bolen and Jim Vanderberg opening a location in Columbia at 650 Lincoln and in Lexington at U.S. 378 and Interstate 20’s Saluda Pointe Court.
While the Barberitos menu runs the gamut of Tex-Mex favorites, it’s the burrito that is the most requested, according to restaurant founder Downing Barber. “We sell a lot of burritos,” Barber said. “We customize it right there for you the way you want it, and we are conscious of giving people value for their money.”
Served with rice, beans, pico de gallo, cheese, meat and veggies, the burritos also offer a choice of flavored tortillas with options of chipotle or spinach tortillas in addition to the traditional flour and wheat selections.
And all burritos are served with a side of what Barber refers to as the eatery’s “world-famous chips.” “We get our corn out of Indiana, and we have worked on the thickness of the chip to make it a thick enough chip that it could hold salsa but thin enough that it wasn’t very filling,” Barber said. “When you eat my chips, they’re just craveable – light and airy.”
Chicken is the most popular meat selection at Barberitos, said local district manager Lucas Messick. “We use only fresh chicken that is marinated in-house daily and grilled in batches throughout the day rather than all at once each morning,” Messick said.
HOW DID BARBERITOS GET ITS START? After earning a master’s degree in international business and living in Ashland, Colo., Barber found a place to eat called the Underground Burrito. “I was broke, so I would go there and order a burrito and eat half at lunch and half at dinner, and I was amazed you could get a full meal – or two – inside of a tortilla,” Barber said. “Being from South Georgia, we had Taco Bell but not like really good, fresh, made-to-order Mexican food.”
Barber had enjoyed cooking his whole life. While in Colorado, he reached a point where he knew he had to make a major life decision. “I was sort of torn between going and using my MBA and being in the restaurant business,” Barber said. Ultimately, Barber chose the restaurant business, opened his first Barberitos in downtown Athens, Ga., on Feb. 20, 2000, and never looked back. Now there are 45 Barberitos across the Southeast with another 20 currently in the works.
“We make our food in-house from scratch every day, whereas some other restaurants like ours bring theirs in already pre-marinated and even frozen,” Barber said. “I think when you’re using manufactured food, it doesn’t have love and passion it has when you’re making the food in-house by hand. That means something when you do it that way. That’s what separates us – the fresh factor and the taste.”
WHO EATS HERE? Barber’s decision to locate his original Barberitos in Athens was part of a larger plan to quickly disseminate love of his food across the Southeast.
“We chose Athens because of all the diverse students that come here from all over the Southeast,” Barber said. “We felt like we could establish a good customer base there, and that has proven true. Now, when we open a new store in another state, we almost always have a UGA grad or someone who was introduced to Barberitos in Athens come in and tell us they are glad we are there.”
While Barberitos’ 650 Lincoln location has a wide appeal for USC students, it also draws its fair share of professionals in the area looking for a quick and healthy lunch. Lexington’s Saluda Pointe location is a large draw for families.
WHAT ELSE? When local franchise owners Bolen and Vanderberg opened the Lexington location, they did something no Barberitos has done before – gave away free meals for a year to the first 100 customers in line on opening day. The giveaway was such a success that the two are going to offer free meals for a month to the first 100 people in line at their 650 Lincoln location on April 16 and plan to offer the same free-mealsfor-a-year promotion at that location later this year.
“It’s just a great way to give back to the community we serve,” Bolen said. “And we know if they just taste our food, they will be back for more.”