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Published: Monday, 3/25/2013

On the Job

Employees put the fast in fast food

At Hot Head Burritos in Perrysburg, everybody does everything

Assistant manager Jacob Hoover, 24, of Bowling Green, gets ready to shred pork, one of the options at the restaurant. Assistant manager Jacob Hoover, 24, of Bowling Green, gets ready to shred pork, one of the options at the restaurant.
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At Hot Head Burritos in Perrysburg, everybody does everything, regardless of their job title.

Even store leaders clip chicken fat and clean garbage cans. And while they don’t mind most jobs, there’s one that always leaves them in tears: chopping onions.

“I’ve tried soaking them in hot water. I’ve tried lime juice,” said Leeann Businger, an assistant manager at the restaurant, where they use about 10 pounds of onions every day. “None of it works. My eyes are too sensitive. I wear swim goggles.”

Her co-workers erupted in laughter at the thought of her wearing the goggles. Some of them refuse to wear them and fall victim to the tear-jerking vegetables.

It was an hour before opening on a recent day and the crew worked quickly to get the place ready. The staff ran down a mental checklist of things to do — the onions were chopped, the salsas made, cups and silverware stocked, all of which are part of the morning routine.

PHOTO GALLERY: On the job at Hot Head Burritos

The workers arrived early to receive deliveries, which come frequently because the restaurant doesn’t have a freezer. The shop opened a little more than a year ago on East South Boundary Road and it specializes in “fresh fast food.”

“Rice, beans, chicken, steak, pork — we make all of this fresh every day,” said Chuck Salmon, owner of the restaurant. “We don’t have a fryer or freezer. We get our stuff fresh.”

Back out front, the last of the chicken was sizzling on the open grill and thin clouds of white steam bellowed from the steamer as workers poured a gallon of water into it, prepping it for use. The aroma of freshly chopped cilantro and grilled onions drifted through the dining room and back into the kitchen.

The first customers of the day came through just after 11 a.m. By noon, the line was almost out the door as customers piled in to grab a quick bite.

On their second day of work at Hot Head Burritos in Perrysburg, Jake Renner, 19, of Holland, left, and Jordan Williams, 21, of Lyons, Ohio, prepare chicken. On their second day of work at Hot Head Burritos in Perrysburg, Jake Renner, 19, of Holland, left, and Jordan Williams, 21, of Lyons, Ohio, prepare chicken.
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Red, black, and yellow menu boards hung from the ceiling with pictures and item descriptions. Customers strolled through a single file line reading the boards and pointing out which toppings they’d like on their dishes. Moments later, stuffed fajitas and burrito bowls loaded with beans and rice slid across the food counter like groceries on a supermarket conveyor belt. Choices are few, which helps the staff keep up with the short order time.

“Four minutes. That’s the average time for an order,” Mr. Salmon said. “We don’t want any order to take more than six minutes.”

Approaching its one-year anniversary in April, Hot Head Burrito is one of the newest local restaurants to join the “fresh fast food” movement. A second location opened earlier this month in Holland.

The shops specialize in “fresh Mex” dishes, which include burritos, quesadillas, nachos, tacos, and 12 sauces, ranging from sweet to habañero. They’re billed as casual family restaurants.

At lunch, customers hustled and bustled about the restaurant, some in a rush to get back to work while others moved back and forth to the self-serve drink machine.

The sound system streamed pop hits from a Canadian radio station and the flat-screen televisions mounted on the walls were tuned to news broadcasts, sports news shows, and cartoons. The sounds from all of the electronics were drowned out by chatting customers and crew members calling out orders.

“That’s a steak burrito,” Ms. Businger tells Ashley Zibbell, the store leader who was working the register. Ms. Zibbell grabbed a black marker and wrote “STK” on the red foil wrapper. The marker is a must have at the register. The staff uses it to label the orders.

The line inside the restaurant continued to grow, but the crew kept calm and worked through it.

“We’re used to it,” Ms. Zibbell said. “We’re only surprised when it’s not busy.”

Jacob Hoover, an assistant manager at the restaurant, noticed the growing line of customers and came out front to help. He’d been in the kitchen trimming the fat off of chicken. Once up front, he checked the food stock.

“We’re almost out of fajita mix,” he said to no one in particular.

A large skillet, high flame, and some oil are all it takes to cook up the veggie mix of onions and green peppers used in the fajitas. The toppings are dumped into a metal pan and ready to serve.

Sauces stand ready for the day's orders at Hot Head Burritos in Perrysburg. Sauces stand ready for the day's orders at Hot Head Burritos in Perrysburg.
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The line moved quickly, with most customers in and out in five minutes or less, until an undecided customer held up the line trying to decide which toppings to put on the three burritos she ordered for herself and co-workers. After taking a moment to decide, she opted for an ice cream scoop of guacamole, cheese, and sweet habeñero sauce.

“Do you have a Hot Head card?” Ms. Zibbell asked the woman, who obviously was a newcomer. The staff recognized the regulars, knew their orders, and remembered their names. “You get a sticker for every visit and once the card is filled, you get a free entree.”

By 12:25 p.m., the line of customers was gone and the crew quickly reloaded, grilling more veggies, refilling lettuce and cheese, stirring salsa, and cleaning the workspace.

“We’ll go through about 40 pounds of chicken today and probably five to 10 pounds of the other meats,” Mr. Hoover said as he grilled more chicken. He stuck a thermometer into the chicken to check the temperature. “One [hundred] twenty-five [degrees]. Not done yet.”

The downtime didn’t last long. Five minutes later, the customers were again filing through the line.

“You never know what to expect, so we try to take care of things as soon as they need to be done,” said Ms. Zibbell, 23, of Toledo. “Some days we’re really busy and have to restock as we go. Other days we get a few minutes without customers and we do it then. It’s different every day.”

The fast food industry in the United States rakes in more than $170 billion in annual revenues and employs more than four million people.

Ms. Zibbell is one of less than a dozen employees at Hot Head Burritos in Perrysburg. The staff is made up primarily of young adults who have worked in restaurants since high school. About 70 percent are college students. Regardless of title, everyone shares the responsibilities of cooking and cleaning.

“Nothing here is really difficult,” said Mr. Hoover, 24, of Bowling Green. “It can be difficult to keep up during those busy times and trying to multitask, but that’s it.”

Business slows from 2 to 5 p.m. as most customers are working and students are in school.

“It’ll pick up after 5 p.m., when everyone is off work and it’s time for dinner,” Ms. Zibbell said. “Until then, I guess we can get started on cleaning. What’s on the list today?”

Trash cans.

Contact RoNeisha Mullen at: or 419-724-6133.

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