How World Wrapps gilded the burrito and invented fast casual

Stop me when this sounds scary familiar: A historic boomtown becomes ground zero for a feverish technological revolution that promises to transform life as we know it. Shaggy-haired software developers suit up in blazers and T-shirts to preach the gospel of e-commerce. Venture capitalists mingle with hackers and erstwhile cyberpunks at rooftop launch parties lousy with designer drugs and exotic animals. Rents climb, evictions soar, and locals mourn for the city’s soul, consumed by 20-something carpetbaggers lured out west because “the dot-com version of Dutch tulip-mania offers better odds of instant wealth than making partner at Merrill Lynch.” Netscape is public. America is Online. It is the age of irrational exuberance. It is San Francisco in the mid-1990s.

The energy of the World Wide Web and the dot-coms permeated nearly every aspect of pop culture: It could be seen on Friends and Party of Five, heard in the punk-pop bass lines of Green Day’s Dookie, and tasted in Frappuccinos, sun-dried tomatoes, and ginseng-boosted smoothies. But if there was one food that captured the buoyancy of the new economy, an edible icon of the bright and delicious future promised in the ’90s, it was the wrap — the flashy generation X lovechild of the burrito and the designer sandwich, the vibrant torpedo of a new culinary order. Wraps converted a guileless nation of white-bread sandwich eaters into insatiable consumers of Thai chicken, Peking duck, baba ghanoush, and wasabi. “If a burrito is an airplane, then a wrap is the space shuttle!” contemporary cookbooks proclaimed. “In a wrap, anything goes.” Even cottage cheese. Even sloppy joes.

The modern wrap was launched in San Francisco’s Marina District on a mild February in 1995. While a handful of people had previously laid claim to the invention of what might be called a tortilla sandwich — a West Hollywood vegan temple popular in the ’80s; a Connecticut sports bar owned by former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine; a Boston-based experiment with hand-held salads named Souper Salad (they called their prototype “the walkabout”) — it was World Wrapps, a shoestring operation started by four college friends, that transformed a rolled tube of calories into a nation-wide craze whose cultural wreckage still litters corporate conference halls and clammy grab-and-go refrigerators on six continents.

World Wrapps bundled Silicon Valley’s Panglossian optimism into a handheld, portable form, reconfiguring “quick service” and “global dining” for the first information age. In 1995, no fast-food restaurant offered Japanese eggplant or mango-blackened snapper, and certainly none of them featured a staff in jeans and black T-shirts, in a space finished with stained-wood accents, understated metal wall sconces, and geometric mosaics in the entranceway. World Wrapps was modern, virtuous, premium; it was fast casual before there was a name for it.

At its peak, on the cusp of the new millennium, World Wrapps was a 25-location empire that stretched from Seattle to San Diego. It was unstoppable. It was poised to go public. Then the bubble burst.

Ideation is a complex and precarious process — only under perfect conditions can the mind’s creative potential be fully unleashed. Which is why, in the summer of 1993, four college friends — Matt Blair, Keith Cox, Eduardo Rallo-Verdugo, and Will Weisman — convened in Cancún to brainstorm a new business venture. Under a palapa, and the influence of many, many margaritas, they tossed around ideas that cast themselves as the target market — a drive-thru liquor store, a fast-food pasta joint — until the conversation turned toward Mexican food, where it lingered.

Even though none of the four ever really cooked, they saw themselves as adventurous gourmands, as eager to debate the merits of the Millbrae, California dim sum restaurants as the roadside ceviche stands of Ensenada, Mexico. No one could deny the torta’s appeal, and everybody loved tacos, but the burrito, they agreed, was a different beast: It was vastly superior to the boxy and cumbersome sandwich, which was crippled by its poor engineering. The burrito had no top, bottom, sides, edges, or even a front and a back. It traveled well, with its fillings evenly distributed, and was resilient in both extreme heat and cold. Sheathed in aluminum and sleek as a Tomahawk missile, the burrito was perfectly suited to the modern age, they decided; it was portable yet forgiving, functional yet organic — and easily customizable within the strictures of the assembly line.

The four friends were hardly the only ones to have burritos on the brain. Just two months earlier, local journalist John Roemer had declared the burrito a “cylindrical god” in a widely hailed piece in SF Weekly. “The long noontime lines of burrito seekers that snake daily out of the ever-growing number of taquerias along Valencia and Mission streets suggest a religious phenomenon in the making,” he wrote. “These converts, young and old, white, Latino, and black, crowd the temples of beans and rice and take in the heady incense of roasting carne asada before genuflecting in worshipful high-calorie gluttony.” Roemer estimated that 25,000 burritos were consumed each day in the Mission District alone.

Considered as culinary architecture, the burrito was already as good as it got. Yet as a scalable consumer product, the four thought, its potential was untapped — Steve Ells, a former line cook at the San Francisco restaurant Stars, had only just opened his own monument to Mission-style burritos, a little shop in Denver called Chipotle. Affluent gen Xers considered burritos plebeian, greasy, and high in fat, the stuff of cheap lunches and painful hangovers. What if, instead of meat, beans, sour cream, and shredded cheese, the four wondered, the tortilla was filled with high-end ingredients from an array of cuisines taken from every corner of San Francisco, like roasted duck and Chilean sea bass? What if, they asked, fast food could be something more?

Before long, the sun had set over the Caribbean Sea and the four found themselves alone on the beach. As they shook the sand out of their clothes and headed back to the hotel, they continued to plot the burrito’s disruption. They imagined over a dozen concepts for fillings, from Argentinian steak slathered with chimichurri to chicken tikka masala. “I still remember the moment we came up with the idea for the spinach and tomato tortillas,” Blair told me. “Keith and I were driving back into the city from Palo Alto on 101. And we were talking about the multicolored dried pastas you could get in some of the specialty groceries. Why did people always go for those ones over the plain ones, even if they didn’t taste as different as they looked? Color, we realized, is a powerful thing. It tells you a lot. It could be done with pasta, so why not tortillas? The next day I called seven tortilla makers.”

Today, in the wake of the Kooks Burrito appropriation scandal, the World Wrapps origin story sounds oddly and uncomfortably familiar: Affluent gabachos vacation in Mexico; culinary eureka moment ensues; they take their idea back home, where they reap acclaim and profit. Yet World Wrapps’ origin is distinct to a particular time and place. While it started with the Mission-style burrito, popularized in San Francisco thanks largely to the braceros, or Mexican migrant workers, who came legally to the U.S. between the 1940s and 1960s, it was catalyzed by the then-raging mania for fusion cuisine, which started as a trend of lightening and brightening old-world haute cuisine with concepts and ingredients taken liberally from cultures around the globe, especially Asia and Latin America.

While fusion flourished in many places — Mira in Key West, Lespinasse in New York, Roy’s and Alan Wong’s in Honolulu — California became its unofficial base of operations. Home to Chinois (1983), Matsuhisa (1987), Aqua (1991), and The Slanted Door (1995) — sumptuous pantheons of squid ink, silky mousse, and enough fiery chili glaze to transform a dish of seared beef into a glistening Chihuly glass sculpture — California was also where fusion was first manufactured for the masses, starting with irreverent designer pizzas with Peking duck or barbecued chicken slung out of the first California Pizza Kitchen on Beverly Drive. If CPK, a sit-down, full-service casual dining chain, was LA’s opening shot in the mainstreaming of fusion, World Wrapps, which carried its lavish whimsy into the realm of fast food by repackaging the distinct format of the Mission-style burrito, was San Francisco’s volley.

The four friends returned from Cancún with a vision, but not much else. Back in San Francisco, over the next year, they sourced ingredients, scouted equipment, and conducted surveys to figure out how people would feel about gourmet non-Mexican burritos. The friends — now officially business partners — visited more than 40 locations before leasing a 650-square-foot space on Chestnut Street, right in the heart of the Marina District, a notoriously affluent and WASPy San Francisco neighborhood. The rent was ludicrous, the space was tight, and the market was already saturated — there was Sweet Heat, which specialized in semi-upscale Americanized Mexican, a Noah’s Bagels, a Jamba Juice, and a build-your-own-salad concept called Pluto’s. “But we always had foot traffic,” Blair recalled. “Crowds of people playing volleyball on the Green before hitting the sports bars, keeping the fraternity party going.”

They found their chef and fifth partner, 28-year-old Aaron Noveshen, with a newspaper ad. He had a fine dining background, having cooked at Alain Rondelli in San Francisco and West Hollywood’s tony L’Orangerie, but as soon as he heard their pitch for high-end, globally inspired burritos, he was sold. “We came up with the general archetypes,” Blair told me. “Aaron figured out how to get them into tortillas.” Noveshen also taught the partners to design for profitability. “I always envisioned putting lobster in our Spanish paella wrap,” Blair said. “Aaron got us to switch to shrimp instead.”

The partners called their dishes “wrapps” to differentiate them from the other staples of California’s sandwichscape. “There were a lot of shawarmas out there, and we didn’t want to call them burritos,” Blair told me, “even if that confused a lot of customers.” Each wrapp was a riff on what they saw as the world’s greatest culinary traditions, stuffed into a 14-inch flour tortilla. The Mandarin Stir-Fry Wrapp paired snap peas, mushrooms, peppers, and slaw tossed in sesame sauce with jasmine rice, and bundled it into a whole-wheat tortilla; the Samurai Salmon enfolded sauteed salmon, nori, avocado, cucumber, scallions, and daikon sprouts into a spinach tortilla; and the Barcelona Wrapp packed shrimp, chicken, snapper, sausage, basil, spinach, and tomato-saffron Spanish rice into a Roma tomato tortilla. (There was even a 99 Percent Fat Free Garden Wrapp — Greek-inspired, with couscous and yogurt sauce — for vegetarians.)

Within weeks of opening, World Wrapps commanded block-long lines. At all hours of the day, the high-top tables were jammed with lawyers, traders, yuppies, preppies — a lot of Oakleys and spandex, Calvins, and Polo Sport. “We were doing $43,000 a week out of that space,” Blair told me, “more business per square foot than anywhere else on Chestnut Street.” Sometimes they had to shut down after lunch because they ran out of food. Even though World Wrapps didn’t deliver, they struck a nerve with the office crowd. There were rumors that the guys at Intel and Netscape had World Wrapps delivered to their entire offices — because shouldn’t the future of the Net be decided over an equally state-of-the-art lunch?

Yet it was the Original Thai Chicken Wrapp, a spinach tortilla stuffed with grilled chicken, ginger slaw, cucumber, red onion, jasmine rice, and peanut sauce, that captured hearts and mindshare. I can still picture one I had a few years ago, during a “Throwback Thursdays” campaign when it was available for its Clinton-era price of $4.95 — the wan cubes of chicken and the watery slaw oozing out of a soggy green tortilla, the wrap sagging like a punctured toy. But two decades ago, things were different: In the San Francisco Examiner, food critic Patricia Unterman reveled in its textures, declaring it “cold and crunchy, hot and savory, contrasts that very much mirror the mother cuisine.” She liked it so much that she awarded World Wrapps three stars, something unheard of for quick-service takeaway places. “A fast food breakthrough,” she marveled, “the best new San Francisco food concept to come along since the invention of the walk-away crab cocktail.”

USA Today proclaimed wraps “the sizzling fast food trend for 1997.” There were spreads in Bon Appétit and Living Well Magazine. Nation’s Restaurant News, the industry’s biggest rag, named World Wrapps one of 1996’s “hot concepts,” alongside P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Einstein Bros. Bagels. There were worries of jealous rivals smuggling in video cameras to steal Noveshen’s recipes while accomplices waited outside in their getaway cars.

While World Wrapps believed itself to be “taking the taqueria to the next level,” not everyone was sold. “How on earth did the Bay Area, home of Alice Waters and honest, seasonal cooking, become the home of the latest culinary imperialism?” bemoaned one editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, subtitled, “Has multiculturalism crossed one border too many?” Not only had World Wrapps stolen the burrito’s form, the critics complained, but worse, its founders had cast aside the burrito’s honest fillings to sell impoverished simulacra of real culinary traditions to an audience of mostly white, mostly rich diners at three times the burrito’s price. Academics weighed in. “The apparent Americanization of the burrito is not a far cry from its roots,” Jose B. Cuellar, a Chicano Studies professor, told the San Jose Herald Journal. Yet to go so far as to drop the word “burrito” from the dish’s name “smacks of cultural imperialism,” he said. “Some European Americans always want to be Columbus, and invent something or discover something.”

“We never listened to those guys,” Blair told me recently. “Everyone knows that the burrito was created in the borderlands. It was never authentic Mexican food.”

The 16-seat restaurant had been open for barely six months when the partners closed a deal with Trinity Ventures, a high-profile venture-capital firm from Menlo Park that had made prominent investments in Starbucks and Jamba Juice. Armed with $1.7 million, World Wrapps hired a CEO and a board of directors. Before the end of 1995, a second location had opened in the wealthy San Francisco Peninsula suburb of Burlingame, equidistant from Silicon Valley and the city, followed by a third location in downtown Palo Alto, blocks away from Stanford University.

In one year, the wrap metamorphosed from a tequila-soaked fantasy into a product category that generated over $125 million in revenue nationally, largely thanks to World Wrapps. By the end of 1995, Chevy’s, a $170 million Mexican-style chain owned by PepsiCo, launched its own wrap concept — Big City Wraps — in one of the high-trafficked malls in downtown San Francisco, spawning its own series of copycats: Wrap Works (another brainchild of Chevy’s), Todo Wraps, Wrap-a-Rama, and Mondéo. Before long, menu consultants were hired to incorporate wraps into every sandwich menu in the country. TGI Fridays, KFC, and Taco Bell developed their own variations. Tyson Foods launched a line of wraps for grocery stores. ''In all my years in the food business,'' World Wrapps CEO David Barrows told the New York Times in 1998, ''I have never seen anything copied so fast or in so many numbers.”

There wasn’t much World Wrapps could do. The company’s lawyers voraciously hunted trademark violations, but you generally can’t patent a recipe, much less a concept as basic and primordial as the act of wrapping food. According to the writer and Mexican food historian Gustavo Arellano, the weighty, tinfoil-sheathed Mission-style burritos familiar to us today have been on the menus of San Francisco taquerias since at least 1961, although burritos were consumed long before that by Mexican workers; food historian Jeffrey Pilcher has traced the first transcribed culinary reference to the burrito back to 1895. Moreover, around the same time that the first wheat tortillas appeared in the northern provinces of colonial Mexico, urban communities in Mexico City were eating envueltos (Spanish for “wrap”), an enchilada-like street dish of fried corn tortillas topped with chile sauce and most likely eaten with one’s hands. Of course, even the envuelto doesn't begin to explain the deep history of wrapping food. People have been rolling food up in convenient substrates — dolmas, larb, borek, golabki, khao phan, negimaki, popiah — since the dawn of time.

Yet the World Wrapps founders were frustrated, they told the press, that others were taking their idea “and not really executing it that well” and “polluting the niche by creating food that’s not tasty.” They took no issue with restaurants adding wraps to their regular menus, “but it is a little disconcerting to us,” the founders admitted to the now-defunct ’90s publication Insight on the News, “that people’s first exposure to a wrap could be at Taco Bell." (Taco Bell had burritos on its original 1962 menu, Arellano notes.)

In response, World Wrapps had little choice but to expand. New stores opened in Los Angeles, Sacramento, the Inland Empire, and the suburbs of Seattle. By 1998, there were more than 20 locations. “Not many restaurant concepts can go from one to 25 stores in just three years,” Blair told me. “And we grew too quickly for our own good, expanding into locations where the demand just wasn’t there. When we opened in Beverly Hills, for example, we didn’t have a lunch crowd.” He shook his head. “Wraps aren’t as meaningful at dinner.”

To survive in the new millennium, World Wrapps experimented with breakfast, table service, and bento boxes; it even temporarily changed its name, to Fresh Latitudes World Café. The rebrand was expensive and pointless — several stores were closed to fund it and sales continued to plummet. The four original partners sold their stakes in the company and by 2015, there were only four stores left, although their glory days were longingly remembered.

“Ah, pre-teen nostalgia!” one Yelp reviewer had written. “World Wrapps used to be our destination before or after a movie next door.”

“Used to be a favorite for many years but it’s changed,” wrote another.

“This location has managed to stay around in the aftermath of late 1990s ‘wraps’ craze,” a third reviewer had observed. “But even if you want to eat like it's 1999, this isn't the right place to do it. Go somewhere else if you wish to relive those days. Maybe hunt down Wolfgang Puck at Postrio.”

“I'm frankly mystified why World Wrapps closed,” Patricia Unterman, the San Francisco Examiner critic, wrote in an email. “I thought they were delicious.”

Today, we live in a world where the “new California cooking” casually celebrates za’atar, harissa, turmeric, and gochujang, where a poke spot is on every corner in midtown Manhattan, and where mango salsa and edamame hummus line the aisles of hundreds of suburban Trader Joe’s. Dissecting the contents of the Original Thai Chicken Wrapp feels like beholding the skeleton of a long-extinct primate, where you can’t help noticing one’s own likeness in some of its features — the hands, the ribs, the elongated jaw — while the others look so cumbrous and primitive. And yet, wraps are still with us. In fact, they’re everywhere. They’re the stuff of boxed lunches and vending machines and airport kiosks and corporate buffets.

In 2015, two of the original partners — Matt Blair and Keith Cox — bought back the two remaining World Wrapps restaurants in the Bay Area with plans to restore the chain to its former glory. The brand might have been stuck in the year 2000, but there was, they believed, still lingering love for it. One and a half years later, they unveiled World Wrapps 2.0 in an upscale outdoor shopping center in Marin County. Nestled in between a Starbucks and a Baja Fresh, the old clip art globe logo was gone. It its place was a round monochrome stamp that enclosed two zigzagging shapes. The painted blocks of red, yellow, and blue that had colored the ’90s interior had been replaced with a simpler palette of burnt sienna (conjuring images of a Moroccan spice market, claimed the design firm tasked with the rebrand) and cool charcoal grey. There was a lot of concrete and burnished metal, outdoor heat lamps, and polished wood.

“They still have a lot of the same things, but even those taste different now,” a man seated at the outdoor communal table told me. He had come with his teenage son, who was slurping milk tea filled with boba pearls. “It’s gone millennial,” the father smirked, gesturing to the wall of succulents next to the windows.

“They really knocked it out of the park with this one,” an employee told me. “It’s surpassed all our expectations.” He introduced himself as Andy Morrison, an investor in World Wrapps from the very beginning; he and Matt Blair had gone to high school in Tiburon, California together in the 1980s. In between orders, he told me about some of the less obvious changes to the restaurant. They had hired a chef from Left Bank, a small Bay Area chain of white-tablecloth French brasseries, and sourced top-of-the-line ingredients — hormone/antibiotic-free rib-eye steak, organic/non-GMO tofu — whenever they could. The tortillas — now advertised as “flatbreads” — were made in-house and pressed to order, he said, gesturing to the DoughPro behind the counter. “Life is busy. Let us feed you,” read the back of the takeaway menu. Not long ago they had rolled out their own delivery app; they’re making a killing with office catering, Morrison told me. Cox and Blair had started construction on a new location in Santa Clara, 60 miles to the south. (The new location opened on November 12.)

Where the old World Wrapps kicked off a craze that swept the country, the new one dutifully apes recent trends and allows diners to assemble them into hybrids unimaginable in 1995 and impolitic in 2017. As the self-appointed specialist of "credible ethnic flavor combinations," you now can order bulgogi-style beef in a burrito-sized nori roll, or ahi poke in a Vietnamese-style summer roll. There’s a quinoa and chicken tikka masala “quesadilla.” "Gluten free bundles are a signature item at this spot," Marin Magazine recently proclaimed. Anything can be upgraded to a bowl for an extra dollar. During the lunch rush, there were moms in yoga pants clutching iced coffees and boxed salads shuttling between the store and the parking lot, and teenage girls with shopping bags and neon-colored drinks — dragonfruit agua fresca with tapioca pearls, mango lassi with shredded coconut, Vietnamese iced coffee with cocoa nibs. All of the beverages required boba straws. "As the original wrap innovators," the website announces, "we feel a sense of responsibility to maintain the integrity of the food we serve."

I looked over the menu, and my eyes eventually caught sight of the Thai Chicken Wrap, the one that I remembered, the one that had been immortalized by Unterman in her landmark review. It came out in white butcher paper instead of aluminum foil, sliced in half to reveal its rainbow-hued anatomy. It looked much the same as it always had, despite the menu’s promised upgrades: crispy shallots, sesame seeds, a “Supergreen” flatbread that counted leek powder and chlorophyll as ingredients. I peeled back the paper and took a bite. The wrap had a familiar crunch of cucumbers and cabbage, peanut sauce and sushi rice. They used chicken thighs now, I noticed, not white meat. It wasn’t spicy. It wasn’t surprising. But I ate the whole thing.

India Mandelkern is a historian and writer. She lives in Los Angeles.
Natalie Nelson is an illustrator based in Atlanta. Her newest picture book is Uncle Holland, written by JonArno Lawson.
Fact checked by Pearly Huang
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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