Claudia Barrera never thought she’d be in the restaurant industry after graduating from college, but a chance encounter with morning hunger ended up leading her to open a breakfast burrito business in 2019. And believe it or not, those burritos only cost $2 or $3 apiece. In 2019, after graduating from Cal State LA, Barrera was taking a Flixbus to the Bay Area from Patsaouras Transit Plaza behind Union Station and realized there was nothing to eat at 7 a.m. She recalled the skinny burritos she would eat that are commonly sold in northern Mexico made with flour tortillas and sold from insulated boxes or carts for 10 to 20 pesos apiece (equivalent to about a dollar, more or less), and wished she could have some before her journey.
Inspired by those skinny morning burritos, Barrera teamed up with her mother Carolina and aunt Marylou Rasmussen to make several breakfast burritos and sell them for just $1.50 each on busy corners in Downtown LA out of a cart beginning in February 2019. Barrera sister Laura, who works for Metro, assisted with marketing. Because the burritos are premade with eggs, potatoes, and bacon or chorizo, they’re easy to sell in large quantities to busy office workers. The low price seems unsustainable (they’ve since increased to $2), but Barrera insists that helps to keep Burrito Break approachable for everyone, just like they are in Ensenada, Baja California, where she spent time growing up. Barrera, her mother, and aunt eventually opened a stand near the Civic Center, where city employees tend to work, as well as Seventh and Figueroa, in the heart of Downtown’s Financial District.
Just before the pandemic, Claudia and her mother found a permanent space in the Jewelry District inside St. Vincent’s Court where they could base their operations. Then lock downs came in March 2020, which made things became even more challenging for the budding breakfast burrito business. Almost overnight, the once-bustling central business district became a ghost town as office people worked from home. But in June 2020, Claudia finally opened the St. Vincent storefront and re-launched the stands (again on Seventh and Figueroa, and another on Sixth and Hill Streets), hoping to get a trickle of business from locals and commuters. Though business is reduced from before the pandemic, the Jewelry District’s robust foot traffic has helped sales stabilize somewhat.
Burrito Break also expanded its menu for lunch, serving machaca and potato, chicken chipotle, or beans with chicharrón burritos for $3. The flour tortilla burritos are easy to hold and eat, served with either a salsa verde or a zestier orange salsa designed by Carolina. Though Claudia said she was one of the first in LA to serve these skinnier burritos found in northern Mexico, Burritos la Palma has been doing Zacatecas-style birria de res burritos at Smorgasburg and El Monte since 2017. Burrito Break also serves $6 tortas beginning at 11 a.m., with avocado, beef milanesa, and turkey with ham varieties served on bolillos. Drinks include Cafe Taleano hot or iced coffee, which is roasted in Oaxaca, or soft drinks.
The big question is how many burritos do most people tend to order? Claudia says usually get two to start, and then order one on subsequent visits. “A lot of people don’t understand the price. This is sustainable for me. Before the pandemic we would have catering throughout the week for offices, and we were doing over 700 burritos a day from 7 until 11 a.m.,” says Claudia Barrera. They even did a pop-up in Century City prior to the pandemic and did well there, showing a willingness to expand to even more office-oriented locations in greater LA. On July 17, they popped up at Hot Donna’s Clubhouse, a queer safe space and clubhouse in Pan Pacific Park.
Until then, Barrera and her sister Laura fashion themselves as the next Ray Croc and McDonalds brothers, believing in the power of breakfast burritos at an affordable price placed on busy street corners. Maybe in a few years, or decades, skinny northern Mexican burritos will be more ubiquitous than the cheeseburger.
Burrito Break serves 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, and delivers via Ubereats.