Friday, April 19, 2013

Willy's Mexicana Grill Keeps Rollin' Rollin' Rollin' Rollin

Over the years, I've toyed with the idea of interviewing industry icons and having them share their thoughts and experiences in the Atlanta market.  I have a full time job in addition to what seems like a second full time job in this blog, and as such, have been unable to secure professionals to feature on the blog.  Fortunately, the success of the blog has attracted industry icons to the site and Willy Bitter was nice enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions.

Willy Bitter, founder of Willy's Mexicana Grill, is a great example someone who, despite the odds, has found success in growing his small business.  Bitter started his now 20+ unit Willy's Mexicana Grill restaurant in 1995 with a single location on Roswell Road in North Buckhead.  Willy had spent time in California and fallen in love with Cali style burritos, something he hoped to replicate with his burrito restaurant. 

His first location at Wieuca-Roswell shopping center is still there, although it's gone through a few face-lifts and its neighbors have changed repeatedly.

Bitter's group has had similar growth to that of Richard Chey of popular Asian eatery Doc Chey's Noodle House.  Doc Chey's has maintained a small but successful group of three Atlanta area restaurants in Emory Village, Grant Park and Morningside with a fourth in Asheville, North Carolina.  Chey, like Bitter, has had some hiccups along the way but his focus on remaining small, with an emphasis on quality over quantity, has made each of their operations successful.

Bitter, too, was approached by Martin Sprock of Raving Brands.  Sprock, who went on to start Moe's Southwest Grill, initially wanted to partner with Bitter and grow Willy's through aggressive franchising.  Bitter told me he has no regrets about not partnering with Sprock and is pleased with the success and patronage his business has garnered.

Interestingly, Sprock also approached Richard Chey with a similar proposal.  Chey also declined.  Sprock went on to start Mama Fu's Noodle House (later renamed Mama Fu's Asian House.) Unlike the success he experienced with Moe's, Mamu Fu's never caught on. and today the company is based in Texas with zero representation in Georgia.

Willy's now 20+ unit "chain" (I hate to call Willy's a chain, but with as many locations as he has, chain does apply), has closed only two locations since 1995; in Buford at The Mall of Georgia and another on Roswell Road in north Sandy Springs. Considering how many restaurants close in Atlanta every year, let alone the past decade, Willy is clearly doing something right.

In 1995, there were only a handful of burrito options.  Today there are new names coming to town all the time!

Chain operations like Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, Qdoba, Baja Fresh, Moe's Southwest Grill and Chipotle Mexican Grill have all entered the market since 1995, as have local operators like Bell Street Burritos.

Willy seems undeterred by new competitors but says that securing prime locations has become increasingly competitive.  So, if you know of, or see, a great space you think would be great for Willy's, comment on this post or email him and you may just get one!

Although many of Willy's restaurant's are inline, he has had the opportunity to find success where other chains have failed.  His original Roswell Road restaurant was first a rare Burger King inline location.  Willy's large freestanding restaurant on Howell Mill Road was a failed Hardee's restaurant, and its large footprint allowed Willy's to add a full bar, a rarity for the small chain.

Willy's' first franchised location opened in Gainesville, Florida last year.  The restaurant, near the University of Florida, has done quite well and both Bitter and the franchisee are pleased with its results.   I asked Willy about possible expansion plans and his response was what one might expect.  No immediate plans, but, if the right entrepreneur with the right experience and financial backing were to come along and want to open additional Willy's, he'd entertain the idea.  As anyone in the industry knows, this kind of trifecta is rare and likely means there won't be any additional franchise locations opening anytime soon.

Bitter recently opened a new food court style restaurant on concourse B of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.  Given the extensive red tape of airport concessions, this location took longer than expected to open and inadvertently pushed back the opening of Willy's Brookhaven.  As it stands now, I'm told the plan is to have the new Willy's at Cherokee Plaza in Brookhaven open this July.  I reported Willy's plans to open in Cherokee Plaza last July and its opening had at one point been slated for last fall.

Do you have a Willy's story?  Do you have a gripe? Do you have a location you think would be perfect for a new Willy's?  Please share your thoughts below. 


Anonymous said...

I thought they were opening in Brookhaven where Elwoods was?

Atlantan99 said...


Yes, you are correct. The former Elwood's Pizza is where Willy's will eventually open their Brookhaven location.

Thanks for the comment and for your readership.

Anonymous said...

Dunwoody Village. put moe's to shame, please!

Anonymous said...

1. Bring the breakfast menu to more locations and advertise it.

2. Put a location here

There's no close Chipotle and the Moe's are subpar

T said...

When's Bitter going to be ready to take Willy's out of Georgia. I can think of some very specific cities that need this burrito in their bellies- fact!!


Anonymous said...

We were introduced to Willys when my daughter went to Agnes Scott. We would dream about it when we were home. Now that I live in Decatur and eat a plants only diet it is still a great place to eat. It is not uncommon for us to eat there twice a week. I would love to see one open in Avondale or downtown Decatur.

suz said...

please open a Willy's in Olathe Kansas! There is nothing like it here!

Todd Jennings said...

I eat regularly at the location in Edgewood. I live in Henry County. I believe this would be a hugely successful location. Around exit 218 there us alot of development

Anonymous said...

Willys hands down is the best food ever. You find yourself in their line at least 3xs a week. It only takes one bite and your hooked

Unknown said...

I miss Willies so much!!!! No one knows how to make a better fresh quick burrito for a great price and taste!!! I love Willies!! I was even more excited that i would frequent the first Willy’s ever off Roswell road! Willy’s was a great supporter of the school i used to work as well with fundraising and student incentives! I miss the salsa, burritos, staff and most of all the quick access to Willies! Pittsburgh, PA would benefit greatly from a Willy’s and i would love to open one close to me!!!

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