Big Burrito CEO reflects on business, quarantine losses and moving forward
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Big Burrito CEO reflects on business, quarantine losses and moving forward

The restaurant group has the right mix of ingredients to succeed, according to CEO Cary Klein — but COVID-19 put big plans on pause.

Cary Klein. Photo by Cayla Zahoran.
Cary Klein. Photo by Cayla Zahoran.

Big Burrito CEO Cary Klein can’t pick a favorite of the restaurant group’s seven options. “It’s like they’re my children,” he said. “I love them all.”

Klein, 63, joined the big Burrito Restaurant Group in 2001 after selling his clothing and accessory retail company, rue21. When big Burrito started in 1993, it just had one offering — Mad Mex. But by the time Klein joined, it comprised four different restaurants with six total locations as well as catering, and it has since expanded to include seven different restaurants: Mad Mex, Alta Via, Casbah, Eleven, Kaya, Soba and Umi.

The Pittsburgh native attributes big Burrito’s success to the right mix of ingredients. “We think that a successful dining experience is the confluence of good food, good service and great atmospheres,” Klein said. “I think we do the best job at providing that combination.”

Klein adores his job. “I’ve watched our customers grow up and I’ve watched our team members grow up,” he said. “I love to eat good food. And I like to work with people. And I like the fact that there’s new challenges every day… The biggest one I’ve ever had is trying to deal with COVID.”

Big Burrito’s first step in managing its business during the pandemic was committing to retain as many employees as possible, although some had to be furloughed when Allegheny County restaurants were limited to delivery and carry-out only. Then, as protocols changed and restaurants were permitted to begin reopening, the company made a second commitment: pledging to keep employees and customers safe.

As the region moved into Gov. Tom Wolf’s “green phase,” big Burrito was able to bring back most of its furloughed workers who wanted to return, though the company is just not the same, according to Klein.

“The loss is the feeling for our employees,” he said. “And the uncertainty of everything going forward. We haven’t solved the problem yet.”

To-go orders currently occupy a larger share of the business, and patios are more popular than inside dining, which is restricted to half-capacity right now.

While quarantine has been tough (or in Klein’s own words, “a different experience”), it has given him more time to spend with his wife, Kathy, three children and three grandchildren.

Klein met Kathy in college at the University of Michigan, and she has “been there through all the ups and downs of my great career,” he said. “When I was traveling all the time when our kids were young… she was there always for our kids.”

Kathy left her financial analyst role to become a “full-time mom” when the pair had its first child, Josh, who now works with his father at big Burrito as the vice president of strategic development.

For Klein and his family, connecting with the local Jewish community — and with Judaism broadly — is a given. “It’s very important to me,” he said. “Always has been.”

Klein doubles up on synagogues, attending both Temple Ohav Shalom and Rodef Shalom Congregation. He provided financial support to establish Ohav Shalom as he raised his family in the North Hills. Then, when he moved back to the city 13 years ago just a block from Rodef Shalom, he started regularly attending Friday night services there. He now joins the weekly services on Zoom.

“I connect spiritually,” he said. “And then I connect just trying to help all the different organizations either financially or with advice.”

Big Burrito is committed to tikkun olam, offering monthly benefit dinners at Casbah, Eleven, Soba and Mad Mex. Big Burrito also provides gift cards to organizations like the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh for fundraising programs.

Because of the continuing COVID-19 crisis, some of big Burrito’s plans — like opening a second location for Alta Via as well as a Lawrenceville restaurant, Alta Via Pizzeria — are paused. Alta Via and AVP, Klein said, share a focus on salads though Alta Via includes pastas while AVP adds pizza.

Klein also teased other projects on hold right now but refused to divulge the details. “Lots of exciting things ahead hopefully,” he said.

And while big Burrito no longer offers Kosher catering — Klein said the lack of a Kosher kitchen made the offering “too challenging to execute” — a Kosher kitchen or restaurant could be a possibility, he said. PJC

Kayla Steinberg can be reached at ksteinberg@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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