On the day El Pipila reopened for takeout in early April, the SoMa Mexican restaurant made $20. As the bills started to pile up, chef and founder Guadalupe Guerrero had to make a decision: would she stay true to her restaurant’s original mission, or would she start making burritos?
Burritos weren’t on the menu before the COVID-19 pandemic, as El Pipila focused on traditional dishes from Guanajuato, the Mexican state where Guerrero was born. Her daughter, Brenda Juarez, says that ubiquitous meat, beans and rice wraps aren’t something they eat in that region of Mexico. Plus, the restaurant prides itself on making its own tortillas out of masa, not flour. Guerrero’s pozole verde is remarkable, its vibrant green color comes from fresh cilantro and tomatillos. But in this to-go era of dining out, a burrito is tailor-made for take away.
Juarez, who manages El Pipila with her sister Alejandra, talked it over with her mother. Guerrero said, “We have all of the ingredients, so let’s start selling them.” Now the adjusted menu includes two breakfast burritos, as well as lunch offerings filled with familiar taqueria staples, like carnitas, chicken, shrimp and carne asada. Guerrero has also added a “build your own bowl” option that’s selling well. There are construction workers nearby on Brannan Street and occasional office workers who come in. “We’re adjusting to what people are wanting,” Juarez says.
Juarez describes her mother’s approach to cooking as straightforward and simple. She doesn’t use many condiments or spices. “Sometimes salt and pepper. Sometimes just salt. We use a lot of garlic for the flavor. We want to continue with that.” One item that’s missing (and missed) from the modified menu is a changing trio of agua frescas.
Before the novel coronavirus, El Pipila would regularly buy large quantities of mango, melon and watermelon from their produce vendor and turn them into refreshing fruit juices. Since April, they’ve dialed back their weekly order. “People aren’t buying agua frescas and we don’t want to reuse them for the next day,” she explains.
Before COVID-19, El Pipila employed six people full time, including Brenda and Alejandra, and a part-time cashier. Right now, it’s just the three family members at work. When their revenues improve, they plan to hire one full-time employee back.
“We wanted to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but it wasn’t a good fit for us,” Juarez says. With their bookkeeper’s advice, they applied for a loan elsewhere to help pay the rent and utilities. “Hopefully, we will get approved within the next couple of days,” she says. In the meantime, the landlord has given them a temporary reprieve. They have a year to pay off the two months of back rent they owe.
In addition to serving customers in the San Francisco Design Center neighborhood, El Pipila has been generating some income through catering. In 2012, Guerrero joined the entrepreneurship program at La Cocina, a nonprofit that helps women, immigrants and people of color establish businesses. With their support, she made the business plan that helped her open El Pipila. Now they’re participating in the La Cocina Community Food Box program and the Burrito Project SF, which feeds the unsheltered and those in need.
Since they changed the menu, Juarez says a busy day now brings in about $300. “A really good day is $400,” she says. Figuring out how to adapt was a good learning situation for the family. “We knew how hard it was going to be without anyone’s help but it helped us grow as a team,” Juarez says.
For fans of Guerrero’s cooking who can’t make it out to the El Pipila storefront, Juarez offers the below recipe to try at home.
10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday-Friday
879 Brannan St., San Francisco
Call (415) 529-2049 for current hours.
— — — — — — — — — — — — —
Camarón Burrito Recipe
By Brenda Juarez
— 1 tablespoon of garlic butter
— 1/4 onion, thinly sliced
— ½ red bell pepper
— 12 medium shrimp
Pico de Gallo:
— ½ white onion, minced
— ½ bunch cilantro, minced
— 2 tomatoes, chopped
— 1 serrano chili, minced
— Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
— 1 large flour tortilla
— ½ cup cooked Mexican rice
— ½ cup cooked pinto beans
— lettuce leaves
— sour cream
— guacamole (optional)
Melt the garlic butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and bell pepper and cook, stirring until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp, and cook stirring until pink and opaque, about 4 minutes.To make the Pico de Gallo: In a small bowl, combine the onion, cilantro, tomatoes and chili. Season to taste.
To assemble the burrito: warm the tortilla, then spoon over rice, beans and the shrimp mixture. Arrange lettuce leaves on top. Spoon the pico de gallo, sour cream and optional guacamole over the lettuce and roll tightly, tucking in the ends. Serve immediately.