Note for hungry fans: Today (Tuesday, October 20, 2015) is "Fan Appreciation Day" at the six Anna's Taqueria locations, in celebration of the growing chain's 20th "Anna-versary." Swing by any location between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. for beverage samples, buy-one-get-one-free tacos, complimentary chips and salsa with your meal, giveaways, live entertainment, and more. Plus, for every burrito sold today, Anna's will donate a dollar to ReVision Urban Farm, an urban agriculture project.
Does it feel like it has been 20 years?
It's been fast. I can still remember the day we opened [the original location] on Beacon Street [in Brookline's Coolidge Corner]. We had an opening party, and it was supposed to be for everyone who worked on the project. We didn't know what we were doing. I noticed that there were a lot of people coming to the door, trying to come in, and then two women came around 5 p.m. and said that they'd been waiting for this to open for a long time. When I heard that, I was like, 'Just open it up. Let everyone in.' We started at 5 p.m., and we didn't end until 10 p.m. It was a good day. It was really amazing.
Any other memories from opening day?
Just that it was hectic, and it was small, because that was when Beacon Street was only 700 square feet. [It expanded to nearly twice the size around 2002.] We had to cook everything there and keep the line moving. All our friends and the people who worked on it — the contractors, the plumbers — they all came. Everybody came. It was a lot of fun, and from that day it's been open every day.
Is there a specific holiday that ends up being the busiest day of the year at Anna's?
Thanksgiving week. Everybody's coming home from college, and they stop at Anna's first, and then they go home.
When did the second location come about?
We opened the second one two years [after the first]. The first one is on Beacon Street, so that's kind of going east-west, and Harvard Street is only four blocks away, but it's going north-south. It's a completely different dynamic. People in the industry and friends of mine thought I was crazy, because they are so close that they thought one would scavenge from the other, but they're totally different.
The Harvard Street location started at 850 square feet, and now that's bigger, around 1,550 square feet. We were one in from the corner; next door was a laundromat, and then we took that and pushed out to that side and doubled the lines and everything.
What's your biggest location now?
Harvard Street is probably the biggest, although the new location — we're going into Newton Highlands, the Baker's Best location — it's 3,800 square feet. With six locations we're big enough in the Boston area that we could use a commissary, and there's a lot of refrigeration space there, so it's going to work out really well.
Does each opening get easier, or are there always new challenges?
You always worry about whether people are going to come, even now. [Laughs.] The charm of Newton, the seventh location, is that we've built up clientele in Weston, Newton, Wellesley, Natick, Needham, Dedham, Sharon, etc. Instead of going all the way to Brookline, which they usually do, they'll just go to Newton, because the Newton Highlands location is two miles from 128, so it's closer to that side.
What do you look for when you're choosing new locations? How did that one come about?
That one I've been eyeing for a while. I knew that right now in the history of Anna's, we're at a size where we could use that location. We have the clientele base already established, and we needed the space [for a commissary and catering], so all those factors converged. It was a good location. It was already built out; we're doing some cosmetics to it, and then we're going to get open [in early November]. We are going to include ice cream there.
Hard or soft?
I have a softness for soft ice cream — vanilla dipped in chocolate — so we'll have that. That's a whole different animal. And we'll have a hard ice cream bar too. We're not going to open everything up at once; we're going to ease into it.
Any other new additions?
Salads. We have the space, so we can make this kind of a test kitchen. We can try different things and see whether they work or not.
Is seven the magic number, or could you see expanding further?
Seven's not it. It could go to 10, it could go to 12, it could go to 20. We'll see. I look at traffic patterns; I look at whether there are places that Anna's customers would be. Outside of Northeastern — we're not there yet. We're in Davis and we're in Porter, which are good locations. Looking around the Boston area, I'm not sure where else I would go. I might go downtown, but rents are high and it's pretty competitive.
How have you seen the Coolidge Corner-area dining scene change over the years?
We were the only Mexican restaurant in the 1990s, and all of a sudden there were four, five, six. And at one point five years ago there were 20 sushi places in Brookline. It's crazy.
Has anything else been open in that area as long as you have?
Shawarma King has been around, across the street, and Rod Dee, the Thai place. Rod Dee has moved to Washington Square; I opened there and he opened there, and then I opened in Porter and he's in Porter.
One of the keys to any business, anything, is surviving all the years, because it's not straight up or straight down. It's up and down, up and down, and we've certainly had our ups and downs.
What do you think contributes to the overall staying power?
We're reasonably priced, we're fresh, and we have quick service. Sometimes it's so quick it's almost rude. But we're working on that.
What has been the most challenging thing you've faced over the 20 years?
Finding good people. Not only restaurant business but any kind of business. I have to be comfortable with my banker. I have to be comfortable with my accountant. It's very people-oriented, and you have to be able to make the connection and have the faith that they're doing everything that's helping you move to the next level. [So the challenge has been] finding good people and keeping them. We try to promote from within.
What's your own go-to order?
I love carnitas tacos. Not a whole lot of meat — a little meat, fresh cilantro, fresh red onion, and guacamole. And I don't want to gross you out, but lengua [tongue]. I love lengua.
Do you find that to be one of the lower sellers?
Yeah, but there are people who like tongue who really go for it.
What's your best seller, and has that changed much over the years?
No, [it hasn't changed]. Chicken super. Everybody loves the chicken super.
What are your hopes for the next 20 years?
I could see us being stronger in Boston; I don't know if we're going to expand outside the Boston area. We may go as far west as Framingham; I don't know how far north we would go. I don't know if we would go to North Shore or if we would go to Woburn or somewhere up there. We're largely a college-centric business. I always thought about going to Rhode Island, but that's an hour drive, and when I'm not there, it makes a difference. It goes back to having good people again.
Metrowest, Framingham, Holliston — it's still reasonable. We have a commissary, so we do some centralized cooking, like the hot sauces and all the prepping of the foods. Newton will give us another commissary location as well as a catering location, so you can see me setting up those parts of the business, especially as we get into the Metrowest, but I still think we could be stronger in Boston. We only have Mass General. I could be near Northeastern. I get pulled to South Boston, but I'm not sure. There's no college or anything over there, but there's a strong young professional presence.
People want us to come to the airport, but every time I go through the airport, I'm not crazy about it; you wouldn't go to the airport just for Anna's. Maybe near Emerson College, and I've often thought about Chinatown because it's a late-night area.
What's one of your favorite stories over the years?
Around 2002, a woman went to Tufts, graduated, and got a job at the New York Times in the travel section. She loved Anna's when she was going to Tufts, and she would jump on the Fung Wah bus from New York's Chinatown to Boston's Chinatown. Her friends would pick her up, they'd go to Davis Square, and she'd get, like, seven, eight, nine burritos. They'd take her back to the bus, and she'd go home to New York. She wrote about it for the New York Times.
What would you tell someone who has never been to Anna's?
You love burritos, right? Even if you're vegetarian, even if you're vegan, we have something for you. Everything is fresh, reasonably priced, we make it right there for you, and people really like that. They like the dialogue with the order taker and the burrito roller.
What would you like to say to your customers?
Thank you to all our customers. We try; we work real hard at it. It's not easy. We're doing something right, there are repeat customers, and we're very thankful for that. We try to give back; we donate a lot of food to all different causes. We've always been that way, and the customers know that.
It's tough out there. Chipotle's out there, Qdoba's out there, there are a lot of competitors out there. There are some of my managers out there who started their own places. But you just have to keep focused and take care of your customers.