Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis
In one of the most crowded fast-casual segments, Fresh Mexican, a three-store operation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, of all places, is preparing itself for national growth. Izzo’s Illegal Burrito has a memorable name, a solid five-year history, and secret family recipes the found-ers say set them apart from the competition.
“We thought long and hard about how to do this right,” says founding partner Gary Kovacs, who has a background in both restaurants and investment banking.
Now all that thinking has paid off. “We are setting the bar in this segment, offering more choices and authenticity,” says Kovacs’s partner Ozzie Fernandez, a culinary school graduate and son of Mexican immigrants. Fernandez managed a fine-dining restaurant for Kovacs before collaborating on Izzo’s.
The Izzo’s tagline, “Roll your own,” emphasizes customer control, whether it’s building a burrito, a signature Burrito in a Bowl, quesadillas, fajitas, or tacos.
Fernandez says Izzo’s offers more meat and vegetable topping choices than most Fresh-Mex concepts, including main ingredients ranging from fajita steak to pork carnitas to grilled mushrooms. The 13 toppings include grilled peppers, roasted corn, and cilantro, and Izzo’s offers three types of beans: pinto, black, and refried. There are also several salsas and tortilla flavors. Everything is prepared fresh.
“We tell customers to come experience the difference,” Fernandez says. “We’ve been voted best burrito in Baton Rouge since our beginning.”
“I really would challenge you to find another restaurant that prepares everything in-house as we do,” Kovacs adds. “We do not have a freezer or a can opener.”
Fernandez tweaked some family recipes to make them healthier but otherwise is serving the food he grew up on, including salsas prepared by first fire-roasting jalapeños and fresh tomatoes. The staff shucks the corn in house, roasts it over an open fire, and then cuts the kernels off the cob. The guacamole is made completely with fresh avocados.
The average ticket, Fernandez says, is $7.50. Burritos start in the $5 range for the small size and move up to $13 for the 3-pound version, the restaurant’s namesake, the Illegal Burrito. (Izzo’s comes from founder Ozzie’s name spelled backward, without the “e.”) The burritos and other menu items aren’t just served in house, either: Catering and fajita to-go packs are a growing part of the business.