Many folks are surprised to learn that Alan Cohen and Pam Felix — the two who started the first ever California Tortilla in 1995 on Cordell Avenue — aren’t actually married.
Cohen and Felix have been practically inseparable over the 19 years that has seen their fast casual burrito restaurant blossom into a franchise chain with 40 locations, including one in Qatar.
At the end of May, Cohen will retire to San Diego.
“When Pam and I started this thing, we thought if we can’t have fun, we don’t want to do it,” Cohen said. “That’s why we did all kinds of crazy, whacky things. Our employees were having fun and our customers were having fun and it kept sort of generating that mood for everybody.”
The restaurant’s promotions (think the Monday Night Mystery Prize Wheel or Free Pop-Tart Day) quickly became almost as important as its burritos and tacos.
In the beginning, Felix and Cohen were running the DC Improv when they decided to put a burrito concept together in Bethesda, where there wasn’t the wealth of burrito chains there are today. Felix, who owns the comedy club, brought Cohen back to the East Coast after working for him at a restaurant in San Diego.
“We opened it and we didn’t even think about it,” Felix said. “I’m glad we did it that way, because we probably wouldn’t have opened it if we had thought about what we were doing.”
The first six months were “a little rough,” according to Felix. The spunky promotions transferred over from the comedy club. At first, Felix said the two would call customers if they hadn’t come in for a bit.
“We had like three customers, so it wasn’t too hard,” Felix said.
Cohen put the food together and Felix tasted it. The two put their faces on stuff around the restaurant and “the food was good,” Felix said.
Cohen’s greatest contribution might have been the pen used to sign credit card receipts that was literally chained down to the table near the cash register.
“The more fun we had, we were like the little engine that could,” Felix said. “People wanted us to succeed because I think we made it fun for them and they made it fun for us. It was just a great buzz.”
“There wasn’t a day we walked out of work, where we hadn’t laughed,” Cohen said. “There were times I had a day off and I didn’t know what to do. I went into work. It wasn’t work for either of us.”
After opening a second location in Rockville, the pair realized they had the potential for a major expansion, but not the expertise to carry it out.
“We’re very mom and pop,” Cohen said.
They found restaurant veteran Bob Phillips, who along with Keith Goldman bought the two-unit chain in 2003 and began a rapid expansion throughout the Mid-Atlantic.
“Pam and Alan proved that you can make hard work fun and were able to start a small business in a very competitive restaurant environment and grow it to be a prospering business all over the area,” said Dee Metz.
Metz remembered the very beginnings of California Tortilla and its store at 4862 Cordell Ave. At the time, she was starting the Bethesda Urban Partnership. Metz now works for the county government as its White Flint coordinator.
“They were active in the Bethesda community and took the time to get their customers,” Metz said. “Bethesda was lucky to be the incubator for a startup business that has taken off.”
In October 2012, the flagship California Tortilla store moved across the street to a bigger space at 4871 Cordell Ave. Cohen, who still has a home in San Diego, said it’s time to call it a career. He’s looking forward to doing some traveling with his wife.
“This was a very hard decision to make,” Cohen said. “We both enjoyed working and not too many people can say that about their jobs.”