The Devil is in the Details

Pam George

El Diablo Burritos uses fresh ingredients and décor to stand out in a crowd

Would-be authors are often told to “show, don’t tell.” Instead of making a statement, let the reader come to conclusions based on the setting and action. That approach rarely applies to the hospitality industry, but founders of El Diablo Burritos have taken it to heart.

“We don’t tell you it’s good,” says Shannon Stevens, a partner and the creative director. “We don’t tell you it’s fresh. We don’t tell you that you’re going to like it, or that it’s tasty.”

Instead, the quick-casual restaurant shows you, by investing in the ingredients and the atmosphere, not the slogans. And, to be sure, this is not your typical “fast food.” The beef is grass-fed, the chicken is antibiotic-free, and the fish is mahi-mahi and not the more common tilapia. There are no freezers on site, and sauces—including chipotle ranch and roasted garlic cilantro—are made from scratch. El Diablo bakes its own cookies and brownies for dessert; it does not rely on a third-party vendor.

But you won’t see all of that splashed across billboards. From its start in 2010, the restaurant has kept a low profile. For years, the website was just a landing page featuring the mascot – a black bean with devil horns, a tail and a pitchfork.

As a result, El Diablo is developing a mystique that’s been honed by the privately owned and highly secretive In-N-Out Burger, which has a cult-like following.  “We have some real champions of our brand,” Stevens says.

Mare Liles is one of them. “I eat there almost daily,” she says. Why? “Fresh ingredients, healthy, and amazing staff.”

These days, El Diablo has a lot of competition. Latin-themed restaurants have increased, and the “have-it-your-way” approach of letting customers select ingredients has been adapted by chain restaurants featuring rice bowls and poke.

Nevertheless, El Diablo, which is opening a Market Street location in Wilmington this month, continues to distinguish itself. 

Micah McNutt wrapping up an El Diablo burrito, which takes two hands to hold. Photo by Justin Heyes

Bigger Bang for the Buck

El Diablo is the brainchild of Dean Vilone, a Brandywine Hundred native and Salesianum High School graduate with a restaurant background. In 2010, Vilone thought Wilmington was ripe for the Mission-style burritos that are all the rage in San Francisco. Picture fat bundles bulging with ingredients, including rice and beans: These babies take two hands to hold.

Vilone teamed up with Roger Andrews, a seasoned chef who’d worked at several upscale eateries. “From the beginning, Dean wanted to attach El Diablo to higher quality food,” Andrews says.

In 2010, however, items such as organic produce did not come cheap. But menu prices still had to fall within the fast-casual concept. “We can only charge so much for a burrito,” the chef notes. Fortunately, food companies started meeting the public’s demand for better ingredients.

Today, El Diablo buys beef that is grass-fed and grass-finished. (Some cattle are given grain toward the end of their lives to produce more fat.)

While prices on some ingredients have come down, you’ll likely pay more at El Diablo than you might at a national chain. “It’s no secret that we’re still a little bit more expensive,” Andrews acknowledges. A chicken burrito is $9.25; mahi-mahi is $11.

However, loyal customers are willing to pay. Some cite the flexible menu. “By not being forced into a cookie-cutter choice, I can choose and enjoy exactly what I feel like eating at the time—also what my stomach can handle at the time,” says Helene Lotierzo. “Fresh, flavorful ingredients and the helpful staff make it a perfect choice for a quick meal.”

(L-R) Micah McNutt, Z’Haya Silva, Alyssa Street, Mario Edwards, and Rosean Wright, ready to serve you at the Branmar location, are among El Diablo’s 120 employees. Photo by Justin Heyes

The proteins—meat, chicken, fish—are cooked in the restaurants, but the beef and chicken are cleaned in a commissary, where workers also make the sauces. When Stevens tells friends that sauces and other goods are made from scratch, they tell him: “I didn’t know that, but I knew it. I could taste the difference.” The commissary also bakes the desserts. Every day, refrigerated trucks travel between the locations to make deliveries.

The Market Street restaurant is the only one that will serve breakfast, which includes a frittata. The restaurant will be open on Saturdays, but the partners are still considering whether or not to open on Sundays.

Style and Substance

Except for breakfast, the menu at all the locations is similar. Trolley Square, however, does not offer bacon. The flagship restaurant is only 1,000 square feet, and Andrews doesn’t want splattering grease in tight quarters.

The Branmar site, El Diablo’s second, is 4,000 square feet. Now that there are five restaurants, Vilone says the partners are most comfortable with a 2,000-square-feet prototype. Andrews controls the design of the kitchen area, and Stevens is responsible for the dining room’s distinctive look.

If you’ve never been to an El Diablo, the atmosphere might surprise you. Yes, El Diablo sells burritos and tacos, but that’s where the Latin inspiration ends. The restaurants have no pinatas, sombreros, or Mayan pink and turquoise paint colors.

Instead, red is a dominate hue. That’s because the Trolley Square space had an existing red wall that Stevens liked. And, too, El Diablo means “The Devil” in Spanish, and everyone knows that the fashionable devil wears red. The brand’s other signature colors include white, black, and gray, which are easy to duplicate on walls and printed materials.

Stevens is an aficionado of mid-century design—and it shows. Every restaurant has a clock similar to the one created by designer George Nelson and wallpaper peppered with the mascot. Plush white chairs—priced at more than $300 a pop—are the epitome of modern design. Even the logo has a ‘50s flair.

Amid the clean, modern design at Branmar, the assembly line moves along. Photo by Justin Heyes

Most of the restaurants are in strip malls. The exception is the Newark El Diablo, whose freestanding structure presented Stevens with a challenge. “How do we handle the outside so that it looks like ‘us’?” he wondered. The answer: Combine the old and the new. The partners liked the classic brick exterior so much that it became part of future designs. The hydraulic front window swings straight open and up, making it a departure from the usual garage door-style window.

Whether the restaurant is in a strip mall or a downtown district, Vilone looks for a “village hub.” “For us, it’s more about being in a place that’s central to neighborhoods, and there’s some walkability,” he says. With all the development in the city, the Market Street site checks all the boxes.

As El Diablo expands, almost all the management has come from the restaurants’ ranks. At present, there are 120 employees. Vilone acknowledges that the current labor shortages in the industry can present challenges. “We try to create a good work atmosphere; it’s respectful with good communication and connection,” he says. “The turnover is not that high.” Hopefully, the employees aren’t looking to become franchisees. Vilone and crew don’t plan to franchise in the foreseeable future.

Are Kent County and Chadds Ford sites in that forecast? Right now, the team is focused on the Wilmington project. “I wouldn’t want to take anything off the table,” Vilone says. “But taking one step at a time works for us.”

For more information on El Diablo, visit eldiabloburritos.com.

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