Entrepreneur Dean Vilone has hit his stride with El Diablo Burritos, set to open a third site next year

The face of El Diablo Burritos is a black bean with devil horns and a tail. He’s carrying a pitchfork with a burrito impaled on the tines—no easy feat since he has no discernable arms. (He does have nice legs, however.) All you can see of his face are a pair of wide, round eyes. “He’s saying, ‘Oh, no. You caught me eating another burrito,’” says artist Shannon Stevens, who created the logo. “He’s loveable, approachable, and unassuming.”

You might say the same about El Diablo’s founder, Dean Vilone, a native of Brandywine Hundred, who’s kept a low profile since the first El Diablo opened in April 2010 in Trolley Square. A location in Branmar Shopping Center followed in 2012, and by early 2015 there will be a third site on Newark’s Main Street.

Vilone seems happy to let the impish black bean hog the limelight. “The issue of humility is important to us,” says Vilone, sitting in a booth in the Branmar location one recent afternoon. “We’re trying to take one step at a time, and our continued success is due to a fantastic team.”

Yet that fantastic team is largely due to Vilone, says partner Roger Andrews, the restaurant’s chef. “He has the ability to pull the best out of everybody—it’s one of his strongest qualities.”

Some of that talent stems from industry experience, and more than a little was acquired in the school of hard knocks. And you could also say that entrepreneurialism is in Vilone’s DNA.

His grandfather, Alfred Vilone Sr., developed the Fairfax community and shopping center. Vilone’s father, Richard, developed the Penn Oaks Racquet Club in West Chester and townhomes in Kings Grant in Fenwick Island. Richard followed his interests. A hobby restoring and selling vintage Corvettes led to a wholesale car business. He later opened an Oriental rug store on Concord Pike. “He was buying rugs for his own house and liked the process of researching them—he never bought retail,” his son recalls. “He liked to crack the supply lines.”

Vilone grew up in Edenridge, went to Salesianum High School, earned a degree in finance from Boston College in 1989, then helped his father develop Kings Grant. At that time, he says, the beach was desolate in winter.

By 1991 he was ready for the big city, so he headed to New York to be a photographer. “I just did my own thing, had odd jobs and had fun,” he says.

He and two friends found a bar owner willing to sell the business at favorable terms; each partner only had to initially ante up $5,000. That was followed by a second bar. During this time he was also married—briefly. (“We played well together,” he says.)
Tired of the bar business, the peripatetic Vilone moved to Miami, where he worked in restaurant dining rooms. “That was out of the frying pan and into the fire,” he says of the hard-partying crowds that populated the city in the 1990s. By 2000, the fast life had caught up to him, and he came home and went into recovery.

Back on his feet, Vilone in 2001 opened The Gremlin, a breakfast-lunch spot on Orange Street. All was well until Sugarfoot Fine Food opened nearby. The Gremlin closed in 2003.
Undaunted, the next year Vilone opened National, a restaurant at 902 N. Market St. in the Residences at Rodney Square. His ex-wife, an interior designer, helped create a sleek South Beach-like décor that stood out in Wilmington, which at that time was dominated by Brandywine Valley conservatism.

Vilone opened the Trolley Square location in 2010, followed in 2012 by the Branmar site, shown here. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Vilone opened the Trolley Square location in 2010, followed in 2012 by the Branmar site, shown here.

Vilone acknowledges that fine dining was not his strength, and the location has proved problematic over the years. Result: National closed in 2006, and three other restaurants have occupied the space since. It’s currently empty.

Feeling that he’d experienced a public failure—although not an uncommon one in the restaurant industry—Vilone started drinking again, then went back into recovery. Never at a loss for an idea, he “storyboarded” concepts for a new restaurant while selling crab cakes at the Wilmington Farmers Market on Wednesdays.

He felt Delaware was an untapped territory for Mission burritos —which became popular in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1960s. The colossal tortilla-wrapped packages include rice and beans; they’re a burrito that eats like a meal.

When the recession hit and commercial space opened in Trolley Square, Vilone saw his chance. Unfortunately, his top choice for a chef, who’d worked with him at National, was unavailable.

He shared his vision with Roger Andrews, whom he’d sat next to in recovery classes. The Hockessin native had worked at 821, The Back Burner and Dome. Would he be interested in quick-casual dining?

“It was a low point in my life and it was something different,” Andrews says. “We just wanted to do something from the heart, not anything pretentious—just great food at an affordable price.”

Still, it was a challenging adjustment for the chef. He was used to braising, reducing and saucing. Dishes in his world were painstakingly “finished” with butter or clever garnishes just before serving. But at El Diablo, the recipes had to be “tasty, fast and efficient,” he says.

Accustomed to being a hands-on chef, he’s learned to become a teacher. Employees must know what to do when tomatoes and avocados vary from day to day. If pineapple isn’t sweet enough, more sugar is needed in a recipe.

Perhaps not surprising, given their one-day-at-time approach, the partners started slowly with little advertising. To be sure, little is needed. Although they have a great website ready to go, Vilone says, they’ve yet to fine-tune and launch it. Facebook is a primary way to get the word out. For months, the Branmar site didn’t even have its own phone number. Word-of-mouth has given the restaurant a cult-like appeal among foodies.

Stevens, a partner, designed the look of the restaurant as well as the logo. He purposefully configured the room so waiting lines wouldn’t crowd diners. Good thing. It’s not unusual for lines to snake out the door in Trolley Square—the restaurant only has 18 seats. (Newark will have 22; Branmar has more like 70 and it also serves as the catering kitchen.)
Stevens credits El Diablo’s success in part to the need for affordable but good cuisine after the recession hit. But he also notes that food is made from scratch, and customers can taste the fresh difference. There is no freezer, and everything but the tortillas and cheese are made on site, Vilone says.

The partners often talk about ideas for other concepts. Vilone is inspired by trips into cities such as Philadelphia, where he walks the streets, listens to self-help and spiritual audio books and admires the architecture. If he had the skills, he says, he would have been an architect or involved in cultural studies in some fashion. “I’m an appreciator with an artistic soul,” he says.

No doubt he’s also appreciating El Diablo’s success, but in his characteristic manner these days, he practically squirms when discussing it, as though he might jinx it.
As Vilone talks, the devils on the logo-patterned wallpaper seem to look down approvingly. Vilone gives one a glance. “He’s a friendly little bean,” he says. “He’s a kinder, gentler guy: he’s changing his story and cleaning up his act.”

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.