That's a Wrap: Vendor Is Ready to Retire

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Even as the city tries to encourage a new world of street-food options, the world is shrinking for downtown workers who seek inexpensive grub at lunchtime: The popular Pedro & Vinny's burrito cart on the southwest corner of 15th and K streets NW will roll away for good Nov. 20.

John Rider, also known as Burrito Man, is moving to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he plans to open a bricks-and-mortar Pedro & Vinny's restaurant selling not only burritos but also pasta, wraps and salads. He blames Washington's congestion and lack of white sand for the relocation.

"I'm tired of the traffic, and I want to live near the beach," says Rider, 49, who took over the business six years ago from founder James Tiu, a lawyer. Tiu, who brought burritos to that corner in 1994, now owns the Honest to Goodness Salsa Cafe in Wheeling, W.Va.

As many as 175 people a day line up for a whopping $5 vegetarian bundle of beans and rice assembled by the affable Rider. His hands are in constant motion, flipping tortillas, scooping salsa and squirting on the hot sauce of a customer's choosing from among the more than 50 bottles perched on the cart's window counter. He says he will miss his loyal following.

"They are the best customers you could ever have," says Rider, a former executive chef at the Key Bridge Marriott hotel. "They even make their own change."

He has begun to tell his regular patrons that he is moving on, but not all of them have gotten the word.

"I'm sorry to hear it," says Keith Frost, 51, of Rockville, who has stopped by once a week for the past four years. "It's an outstandingly good value with great taste for all of us who work around here."

Rider says he has tried to sell the cart but has not found any takers. Now he is looking into the possibility of donating the business to a nonprofit organization or to a school, as a training aid for culinary students.

"I want the business to continue and to help the disadvantaged in some way. I'd rather do that than have someone hand me $50,000," he says.

As far as the hot location on K Street is concerned, Rider has no claim; that belongs to the city. Sam Williams, the District's coordinator of vending and special events, says that when the burrito cart closes, the coveted spot will be absorbed into the lottery system that was established earlier this year as part of the city's new vendor program. That initiative, which ends a 10-year moratorium on new vendors, is intended to facilitate the opening of carts that sell something other than hot dogs.

"There's no way we would let a vendor 'will' a space to another person. They can't sell that location," Williams says. "We want to keep it a model aboveboard."

When Williams learned that Rider was thinking of donating the cart to a needy group, he was hesitant, but said: "We might be able to work something out. We are open to things that would make it more than just a vending program."

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