From Airplanes to Burritos
In 2010, Jon Pierre Francia (’94) felt stuck. The children’s television show he had been producing, Jake’s Airplanes, had lost funding during the economic downturn of 2008 and Francia was unsure about his next career move. During this period of uncertainty, Francia attended a fortuitous family picnic that would change his career path for good.
Francia recalls, “I was at a family picnic and my nephew said, ‘Hey, you should come to North Dakota. We’re eating out of gas stations and driving oil trucks—come start a taco truck. You make great food!’ And I said, ‘That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.’”
But two years later, Francia found himself sitting in a bright red 36-foot trailer in the middle of winter in Alexander, North Dakota, hoping the burritos he had concocted would sell.
“The first day there, I knew I had made the worst mistake of my life,” Francia explains. “It was brutal cold and I was feeling like I was on the dark side of the moon. It was really tough, but I couldn’t allow myself to fail.”
Francia’s determination paid off and the red trailer, dubbed “Sweeto Burrito,” soon gained a reputation as the best food on the Bakken oil range. After a few months of success, however, Francia received word that the nearby highway was scheduled to close for four weeks, severely limiting customer access. With little choice but to leave Alexander, Francia and his partners—his father-in-law and a friend—shelled out several thousand dollars to relocate the trailer to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally happening three hours away.
“It seemed like a terrible mistake again, like a big waste of money,” Francia recalls. But three days after their arrival, Sweeto Burrito took off—becoming a top food vendor and earning a recommendation from the city of Sturgis that eventually led to a feature on the Travel Channel.
After Sweeto Burrito found success in Sturgis, Francia was approached with several offers to franchise. Now, four years after Francia’s first North Dakota winter, Sweeto Burrito has expanded to include three food trucks and four restaurants spread across the country from Utah to Virginia, with six additional restaurants under construction and several more about to begin.
Francia, who describes himself as “a BYU dropout with several PhDs in life,” found that the film and marketing classes he took at BYU prepared him to creatively market the Sweeto Burrito brand. After deciding on the name “Sweeto Burrito,” Francia had asked his marketing connections to brainstorm potential brand concepts. When one suggested a Mexican luchador theme, Francia knew he had found his answer.
With his experience in the television and advertising industries, Francia was able to turn the luchador concept into a sophisticated brand, from the luchador masks that adorn the distinct bright red exterior of Sweeto Burrito restaurants and trucks to the wrestling-inspired menu items. Sweeto Burrito’s menu boasts salads, bowls, street tacos, and—unsurprisingly—burritos, which come in “middle weight” or “heavy weight” sizes with names like the “Break Neck” and the “Carne Assassin.”
Alongside Sweeto Burrito’s official slogan, “Flavor worth fighting for,” Francia lives by a second motto: “A tortilla is just a container for awesomeness.” Recalling the peanut butter and jelly quesadillas of his youth, Francia explains that he has been wrapping “everything you can imagine” in a tortilla since he was a child. “A tortilla is a delivery vehicle for great food,” Francia says.
As a result of Francia’s philosophy, Sweeto Burrito’s offerings are in no way limited to traditional burrito fillings. While several burritos contain seemingly standard ingredients like rice, black beans, and the sweet shredded pork found in the signature “Sweeto,” tater tots and onion rings have also found a place on the Sweeto Burrito menu. Francia constantly has new combinations in the works, from a meatball burrito to the deep fried burrito he calls the “Fat Tony.” “It’s endless what we can do with a tortilla,” Francia explains.
While Francia’s creative take on the tortilla certainly contributed to Sweeto Burrito’s success, his own perseverance was also vital in taking Sweeto Burrito from a food truck in North Dakota to a national restaurant chain. “I don’t believe in ‘no,’” Francia says. “Somehow, I’ve always believed that I could overcome the obstacle to make things work.”
And now that Sweeto Burrito has found success, Francia plans to bring that same optimism and determination to revisit an unfinished project. “I want to finish Andy's Airplanes,” Francia says. “It’s really a great show.”
—Melissa Barber Garrison (’16)