After nearly two decades of selling burritos on Washington’s K Street, John Rider says his sidewalk cart — which once brought in more than $300 an hour — has become unsustainable.
Business has fallen 70 percent in recent years at Pedro & Vinny’s, and the burrito that USA Today once called “the best thing going in D.C.’s food-cart scene,” is going away for good at the end of this week.
It’s not for lack of trying, Rider, 59, says. He’s spent the past five years attempting to resuscitate sales, first by adding chicken to his vegetarian menu, then home-smoked carnitas. About six months ago, he added tacos. After that, barbecue pulled pork and coleslaw. Along the way, he raised the price of a burrito from $4 to $6.
But, he says, the long lines that once snaked around the corner of 15th and K Streets NW aren’t coming back.
And so, after lunch on Friday, Rider will pack up his cart and drive seven hours to Calabash, N.C., where he has taken a job waiting tables at a restaurant that sells seafood and pasta.
“I know Pedro & Vinny’s is a good concept, but there are way too many people opening restaurants these days,” Rider said. “My wife and I have been trying to stay here — we really don’t want to leave, we have family here — but then I start looking around, and if I’m honest with myself, it’s like, this area doesn’t need another freakin’ food place.”
That proliferation of restaurants and food trucks, as he sees it, is the main problem. But there have been a number of others, too.
For one, The Washington Post, which used to be on 15th Street, moved a few blocks away in late 2015, taking with it dozens of his regulars and about one-third of his sales. A few other nearby buildings are also undergoing renovations, and the CVS on his corner recently closed after months of declining sales.
At the same time, nearby food trucks are multiplying, and chains like Chipotle, Potbelly Sandwich Shop and Pret a Manger are taking up residence in newly renovated downtown offices. As a result, a number of longtime eateries have closed: Juice Joint Cafe, after 19 years. California Grill, after more than 25.
“It wasn’t just one dagger that killed me,” Rider said. “It was one after another, after another.”
Back in his heyday, from about 2007 to 2011, Rider says his one-man cart might bring in $1,000 in an afternoon. In 2007, Washingtonian magazine reported that Rider — who is notoriously tight-lipped about his finances — made enough from his burrito cart to afford a vacation home “and then some.”
But lately, he’s had to take a job waiting tables to pay rent on his house in Annandale, Va. In addition to slowing sales, he recently got notice that the owners of the Pedro & Vinny’s restaurant in Arlington — who were paying a weekly fee to use the company’s name and its hot sauces — wanted to part ways. (The eatery is now called Burrito Bros.)
He also had to shutter the burrito cart his daughter used to manage at 12th and F Streets NW. Sales were never great there, he says, and it didn’t make sense to keep going.
“I feel like I’m doing my daughter an injustice having her do what we do,” he said. “I just said, ‘I’m not going to reopen you.’ She was mad at me, but I think in the long run, when she gets a career under her feet, she’ll be okay.”
“The past few years,” he said, “have been debilitating.”
On Wednesday, as news of his impending departure spread, more than two dozen longtimers had lined up by noon.
“He’s my meal plan,” said Jesse Witten, 51, a lawyer who’s been coming for eight years.
“This guy’s fed me more than anybody, except maybe my mother,” said Jordan Berman, 34, a regular since 2005.
Behind him was Maureen Hardwick, who’s bought at least one burrito a week at that spot for years.
“It’s heartbreaking. I’m in denial,” said Hardwick, a lawyer whose offices are directly in front of Rider’s cart. She found out he was leaving recently when a teary-eyed colleague told her the news.
An email from a colleague, with the subject line “One more week to get a burrito,” was what alerted Ali, a 38-year-old lawyer who declined to give his last name. He was waiting for his fourth burrito in as many weekdays
When it’s time to pick up his daily chicken burrito, he tells Rider: “Sorry man, we’re sad you’re leaving.”
“I’m more sad than you are,” Rider replies.
Among his regulars, Rider is known as much for his playful banter as he is for his overstuffed burritos and Goose Sauce, a mango habanero salsa that he stores in Grey Goose vodka bottles.
For a long time, he says, he played off the energy of his crowds.
“I try to make their burrito into something that’s almost alive,” he told radio station WTOP in 2013. “It’s so much better than if someone just gave it to you without saying anything.”
Among his favorite catchphrases: “This is the best burrito I’ve made all day.” “You can take the rest of the day off.” “Don’t take that back to the office, they’ll be jealous.”
Over the years, he and his customers have developed a certain familiar lingo, too. A “black and tan,” for example, is a burrito with black and pinto beans. He asks each customer how hot they’d like their burritos, on a scale from 1 to 10, “fruity or non-fruity.” And then there’s the cash box: Rider relies on an honor system. Customers put in however much they owe and make their own change.
All of those little things added up to a loyal following. There were people who ate Rider’s burritos every day. But after the people stopped coming, it was difficult to stay upbeat.
“When it’s slow and there are one or two people in line, I can feel my brain going numb,” said Rider, who used to be the head chef at the Key Bridge Marriott’s rooftop restaurant. “It’s miserable.”
The last time Rider — who started his burrito cart in 2002 — packed up and moved down south, business was booming. It was late 2007, and he had to move to North Carolina for family reasons.
Rider started anew. He bought a small restaurant near his house, named it Pedro & Vinny’s and started selling burritos, tacos, quesadillas and five types of pasta.
“It failed almost immediately,” he said, adding that retirees weren’t interested in burritos. “I was incredibly cocky when I went down there. I left here at the top of my game, thinking I could do no wrong. But anybody can do wrong in this business.”
Within six months, he closed the restaurant at a loss and returned to his burrito cart in Washington. The crowds, and the money, followed.
“I crawled back here and had three or four more incredible years,” he said. “You make mistakes in life, and you try to learn from them. But it’s not 2008 anymore. It’s not going to happen again.”
Now he’s getting ready to say goodbye. In September, he’ll renew his two sidewalk licenses — which the District has stopped issuing to new vendors — for $600 apiece and give them to other vendors. One is planning to sell tacos on K Street.
“I figure, why end these spots if someone else wants to try their hand as an entrepreneur?” Rider said.
Rider says he’s not sure what he’ll do next. Maybe, he says, he’ll start a lawn-mowing service in North Carolina. Maybe he’ll call up Cisco, where he worked as a salesman two decades ago, to ask for his job back. Even though he has no plans to revive his food cart, he’s driving it down and leaving it in storage just in case.
“Honestly, I’m burnt out,” he said. “Waitering four or five nights a week, to me, sounds like a vacation.”
The irony, he says, is that this week has been good. Longtime regulars have been returning to say their goodbyes. The lines have been so long that he couldn’t see to the end — “some of those old-time lines,” he said.
“People are coming by and saying, ‘Oh no, I wish you’d stay. Are you sure you’re not going to change your mind?’ ” he said. “I feel like saying, ‘When’s the last time I saw you? A year ago?’ I don’t say that, but it’s the truth.”
“Things change,” he said. “People’s habits change, and it all adds up.”