Slice of Life: John Rider, serving burritos with a side of jokes

Natalie Plumb, special to

WASHINGTON – John Rider, 55, is the owner of Pedro & Vinny’s, your standard burrito food truck. But there’s not much that’s normal about Rider’s business.

He serves up to 225 people every day, and tells jokes to every one. He memorizes a few names in the process too.

Rider worked at “Pasta a la Carte,” an Italian food cart near George Washington University, before Rider’s wife took over the business. In January 2002, Rider moved to 15th and K Streets, the same year that “Honest to Goodness Burritos” left the spot.

After Rider served burritos on K Street for a few months, he started taking his leftover ingredients to make burritos near “Pasta a la Carte” near GW’s campus. Within the year, the couple decided to combine their businesses into the burrito food truck “Pedro & Vinny’s.” Since then, “Pedro & Vinny’s” has expanded to Arlington, Va. and has kept its home at the intersection of K and 15th streets NW.

“I come about three times a week,” says Adrian Ortiz, 21, who works at a parking garage two blocks away. “It’s a great place, great service, food’s delicious — you don’t find that around the city.”

On Wednesday, WTOP Living spent a workday with the former chef, who attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I. in 1979. We caught the day’s jokes, secret sauces and frequent customers.

What’s so special about your burritos?

A lot of little things. The No. 1 thing is the freshness of them. The beans and rice are cooked every morning. I use Extra Virgin Olive Oil. A lot of it. It tastes nice. A lot of things I do are similar to Chipotle and Baja Fresh, but the big difference is the sauces, the steam and the melting of the cheese. I like to make people think that when they leave, they have something special in their hand. All the ingredients are the best ingredients you can get.

What are your ingredients?

Black beans, pinto beans, rice, sour cream, guacamole, Pico de Gayo, a ton of hot sauces: Goose sauce, mango habanero, cilantro habanero, sun dried tomato hickery smoked habanero, coined by customers as K St. habanero.

Goose sauce?

Years ago, there was a sauce that was very popular, and I couldn’t get it for six or eight weeks, and I needed to replace it so I just started poking around at recipes. I came up with my own thing. The thing I was always the best at in the kitchen was sauces. I always had good taste. So I made the mango habanero hot sauce. I’m thinking ‘What the heck am I gonna put this thing in?’ and I had this Grey Goose vodka bottle sitting around so I put it in that.

Customers were into that?

Those bottles became a part of the sauce cause that’s what customers started calling it. I remember buying Grey Goose so we could empty bottles and drink it fast.

Tell me about your daily routine.

I get up at five in the morning. First thing I do is I put on the coffee. Go to the television and want to hear exactly what the weather is. I need to know if it’s gonna rain, when it’s gonna rain, whether it’ll be during lunch or not. I’ll go out there with an ounce of beans and rice that you wouldn’t think I’d bring if it rained. But that’s cause I know it might not rain during lunch. I treat that day busier than what you would think. I put everything on, head to the gym and work out for an hour or two, do the things I have to do to get ready, spend some time with my family, drive into D.C. By 3:30 p.m. I’m cleaned up and done for the day.

Is this better than a nine to five?

Oh yeah, definitely. When I’m down there, I don’t have to be anybody. I’m happy with what I have. I really enjoy the customers. It’s just fun. It’s not like working. It’s almost like entertainment: Not only am I giving people something that’s really good for them, I’m making them happy. I’ve had bosses and was in charge of people. I enjoy not having to manage people and definitely enjoy not being managed.

What percentage are repeat customers?

Close to 100 percent. Probably nine out of 10. I could go down on Constitution and get absolutely nothing. They’re not familiar with it. It’s not a hot ball cart. There’s always a lot of new people on K St. Usually, if somebody leaves, they’ll bring somebody in to replace them. I didn’t realize how big the customer base was until we moved into Arlington and didn’t get any business at first. We were busy immediately after we put up “Pedro & Vinny’s” signs.

Why do they keep coming back?

I try to make their burrito into something that’s almost alive, or it’s like they’re getting a present for Christmas or like something that I’m making for them that’s gonna make it the best day of their life. Build the burrito up to the point where it makes them so excited to get it. It’s so much better than if someone just gave it to you without saying anything.

What are some things you say?

“You can take the rest of the day off.” “Don’t take that back to the office, they’ll be jealous.” “‘This is the best burrito I’ve made all day.” Things like that.

You must be a people person.

I like talking back there cause I kind of feed off the energy of the customers, and making them happy and hearing them laugh. The line in the summer gets really long. I don’t want the people to get the feeling that I’m trying to push them along — I am to an extent, but I respect their time, and I don’t want them to think I’m like a waiter trying to turn tables and make money.

Do you eat your burritos?

Monday through Friday, I have a burrito every day. I set up and look forward to eating my burrito.

You ever just completely lose the craving for one after having one every weekday?

I don’t really move from the spot, and I’m hungry around 11 o’clock and I have to be there. I can’t go anywhere. They’re good, and they’re good for you. I don’t get tired of them. I can’t explain it.

What’s on your burrito? I usually put a little rice, some black beans, a lot of salsa, Goose sauce and cilantro. My favorite tortilla is whole wheat.

How much longer do you think you’ll be out here?

Pedro and Vinny’s looks like it has a great future. We got our eye on at least two other locations. If you look at the success of Arlington — at the demographics of the Washington, D.C. market in general — that product is a place where it can do OK.

So, no date?

It can keep me busy for the rest of my life conceivably.

Editor’s Note: Slice of Life is a Sunday feature, in which WTOP Living talks with people in the community to find out their stories, passions and what motivates them every day.

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