Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ann Arbor's burrito wars

You've got to grudgingly admire the cojones on Tios Mexican Cafe owner Tim Seaver. 

He's a guy who, when the city of Ann Arbor bought the building he's rented for 23 years, waged a public-relations battle to force the city into helping him move. The city, almost ridiculously, did so, going as far as forgiving his final two months rent at the old location and expediting his new liquor license. 

"But I still wanted to beat up on them," Seaver told The Ann Arbor Observer

He's a guy who, upon finding a new location for his restaurant two blocks away from the original, solicited donations from customers in an attempt to raise $50,000 for the move. I am an educated man, but I cannot for the life of me understand why it would cost 50 large to move this business two blocks into a ready-to-use building.

He's a guy who dishes the worst Mexican food I've ever tasted and charges outrageous prices for the privilege of eating glop.

I've thought about Tios and Seaver a lot lately, in the context of a recently revamped burrito market in downtown Ann Arbor. Chipotle has arrived. One substandard Mexican eatery, Salsaritas, has already closed in the aftermath, and I wonder how long before Tios follows suit. 

Based on the fact Seaver resorted to hitting customers up for his move and is already in debt, according to this story, I do not expect it will survive. But what do I know? It has already stuck around for 23 years. 
 
I suspect that it has survived this long for a few reasons. One, for a long time, it just didn't have much competition.

Two, along those lines, Tios seems to be part of a certain group of Ann Arbor-area restaurants that are irrationally beloved by long-time town residents. For them, the usual quality barometers like food, ambience and service are secondary. Their chief criteria is homerism, and their opinions can be summed up like this: "If it's from Ann Arbor, it must be GREAT!" 

To these people, Tios has some hole-in-the-wall cache. 

To anyone who has eaten a Mexican meal outside Washtenaw County in, say, the past 20 years, Tios is disgusting. 
  
Burritos are filled with a porridge-like substance that masquerades as black beans. Meat is added in microscopic amounts. Guacamole, which costs extra, has the consistency of Jell-O. Pico de gallo is really, really bland. Heartburn is assured.

There's really nothing redeeming about Tios.

That's why I think Chipotle will ultimately win this battle. The demographics around town have changed enough in recent years that enough business people and college students have lived elsewhere before coming to Ann Arbor, and they now possess a base expectation for Mexican food. 

Chipotle simply tastes better. By a lot. (Random statistic: Chipotle spends 32 percent of its operating budget on food -- more than any other fast-food chain -- buying naturally-raised meat). Compared to Tios, it tastes far better, is less expensive and has a better location.

Looking at value instead of taste as the chief criteria, Tios still loses. Rio Wraps caters to the low-cost college crowd and tastes better. Not as good as Chipotle, but better. Taco Bell obviously, would be a fraction of the price, and I think that even tastes marginally better than Tios. 

Despite all of this, I do not wish for Tios to go away. There are enough vacant storefronts downtown that there's no need to add another victim to the dreary pile of economic casualties, especially a mom-and-pop operation. There's at least a few waiters and waitresses, not to mention Seaver and his wife, who depend on Tios for their livelihood. I wish them well. I hope they succeed.

If there's any reason to offer them hope, I think the fact Seaver now has a liquor license can potentially help his bottom line. That, and its delivery business is unaffected by the move. 

But the only thing that may ultimately save Tios is a commitment to serving better food at reasonable prices. 

Given that the restaurant is run by a man who threatens to beat city officials who have done nothing but bend over backward to help him, I'm guessing he's not eager to act upon that suggestion.

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