Even on a busy Friday morning in the throes of commuter traffic into Downtown Los Angeles, it’s easy to spot Matt Stevanus and his breakfast burrito stand. His parking lot setup is steps from an Expo Line stop, pitched in the shadow of under-construction skyscrapers and Staples Center a block away. Stevanus has a minuscule operation compared to the soaring surroundings, with just a couple of propane flattop griddle and a table for prep/finishing/payment-taking/napkin-holding. But in truth, the name Lowkey Burritos doesn’t really do Stevanus’ business model justice.
For starters, there’s almost always a line of people waiting. It’s usually a queue of construction workers, business men, students, and a variety of folks affiliated with the Clippers organization (the corporate offices are steps away) hanging around in front of the griddles, asking questions and waiting their turn.
On a good day Stevanus will flip, fold, seal, and serve 70 breakfast burritos in just a few hours’ time. He preps the ingredients at home in Torrance, and when the cooler has been emptied of eggs, hash browns, veggies, and cheese, he packs it all up into the back of his Toyota Matrix and disappears back down the freeway. Easy to spot, easy to miss.
Stevanus has been running Lowkey Burritos as a street-level hustle since last summer, following a couple of stints working in the kitchen at South Bay burrito legend Phanny’s, the Pacific Coast Highway staple that proudly proclaims itself the “home of the breakfast burrito.” This humble stand doesn’t touch the weekend volume of places like Phanny’s or Lucky Boy in Pasadena, but that’s hardly the point.
“I worked a desk job, I tried to be an electrician, but it never worked out because of my limited hours,” says Stevanus. “Even at a young age, I always wanted to run my own show.” Now he gets to do just that, and never has to miss a meeting with the two most important bosses in his life — his two young children. There are loose plans for a full-time cart, maybe seven-day-a-week hours, but for now Stevanus gets to wake up, sell out, and be back by midday to play stay-at-home dad.
Lowkey Burrito’s growth has come naturally, in that true street food word-of-mouth way that seems only possible in Los Angeles. Six months in and Stevanus is up to three weekly stops: Thursdays he cooks near his house in Torrance if he can, or pushes southward to Commodity Coffee in Long Beach. Fridays are at the Downtown parking lot and all his regulars; Saturdays he’s back down south at Lord Windsor Coffee in Long Beach. His catering is picking up too, including a gig last weekend where he cooked close to 200 burritos by himself in a few short hours up in Hollywood.
Some of that growth comes from Instagram, the de facto place for food entrepreneurs these days, but mostly Stevanus sticks to a simple product formula that has served him well. Show up early, cook fast, and offer modifications. Baseline burritos start at $5 and can go as high as $8 with add-ons like bacon, ham, or avocado. Sausage used to be on the menu, but Stevanus says the off-site prep isn’t kind to the links. “Basically,” he explains, “it’s not on the menu if it isn’t something I can eat myself every time I cook.”
Taking a cue from his former restaurant employer, Lowkey Burritos leans into a heavy dice of white onions and green bell peppers, plus par-cooked hash browns. Phanny’s does mushrooms as a baseline veggie, but they’re not here. The most interesting part of the whole operation, really, is the option to add a melted layer of crispy cheese to the outside of the burrito, after the wrap. It’s a final decadent bit of deliciousness reminiscent of the breakfast burrito from Yarrow Cafe across town, though Stevanus say he learned the trick from a friend months ago. Add in a couple of hotel carafes of local Blacklight Coffee at the edge of the prep table, and suddenly the Lowkey Burritos setup seems complete.
It’s interesting to watch LA’s many young food entrepreneurs continue to forge their own paths from street food start-up to citywide relevance. Some, like Tacos 1986, arrive fully formed and seem to explode overnight. Others, like Burgers Never Say Die, start as a backyard passion and, thanks to a quality product and plenty of celebrity love, turn into a full-fledged restaurant.
For Stevanus the process and the dream started much smaller, despite his Friday morning home among the skyscrapers of Downtown. The street food model works because the burritos themselves work, and being a one-man band allows Stevanus to only play the hits, and only at his own tempo. Things may change and the business may continue to grow at a rapid clip, but for now there are kids at home to play with. After all: What good is a dream without a couple of smiling faces to share it with?
Lowkey Burritos. Various locations.