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Among Washington’s legions of lawyers, James Tiu stands apart. His area of expertise isn’t corporate mergers, intellectual property, or even dot-com bankruptcies — it’s burritos. When he was still under 30, Tiu quit his job as a contract lawyer in Washington to sell burritos from his own sidewalk cart in the city’s business district. He hadn’t become disenchanted with law; Tiu simply loved burritos and from a young age had always wanted to start his own business. “I have great respect for attorneys — I am one,” Tiu says. “But I always knew I would own and operate my own business, and it wasn’t going to be a legal practice.” After three years at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of McKenna & Cuneo, Tiu had paid off his student loans and decided to trade his pinstripe suits for propane burners. Today, under the red, white, and black striped awning of his stainless steel cart, Tiu serves up meatless burritos that draw a crowd. At the peak of the lunchtime rush, his customers form a line down the block at the southwestern corner of 15th and K streets, N.W. Even in the dead of winter, his patrons sometimes stand in line 15 minutes to buy the bean-and-rice creations. “I’m floored by the fact that people are as loyal as they are and wait as patiently as they do,” Tiu says. As with any smart businessman, loyalty is something Tiu tries to encourage. The cart’s counter holds Rolodex card files full to bursting with more than 750 frequent-buyer cards. What keeps the customers coming back? THE SECRET FORMULA Sporting penny loafers, work boots, and everything in between, Tiu’s patrons have a broad range of tastes, and his burritos are designed to appeal to all of them. Customers with upwardly mobile palates can choose spinach, red-pepper, or sun-dried tomato tortillas brimming with cinnamon beans and guacamole. Traditionalists may prefer a flour tortilla packed with rice and refried beans, topped with a dollop of sour cream. Customers with a hankering for heat can have their burritos topped off with Blair’s After Death hot sauce with chipotle. For the less intrepid, there’s the suave warmth of Tabasco Green or Jump Up & Kiss Me Passion Fruit. The burritos range in price from $3 to $6.25. Tiu has branded his creations Honest to Goodness Burritos, but he says, “There’s a variety of different names you might call them.” Mexican, California style, fresh-Mex, and Cal-Mex are among the options. Whatever his burritos are called, Tiu’s customers can’t get enough of them. “We sell hundreds of burritos weekly,” Tiu says. “And I appreciate that people will stand in line 15 minutes” for them. Tiu says his customers helped him develop the current recipes. He tried different variations on his recipe for black beans, for example, and took note of which one sold the best. “You have to listen and understand what customers want,” Tiu says. His goal has been to offer burritos with a “distinctive flavor, distinctive texture, distinctive temperature, and distinctive proportion of ingredients.” After six years of trial and error, Tiu makes his beans with cinnamon, olive oil, onions, “and two things I won’t tell you,” he says smiling. His customers are smiling, too. “James’ burritos are the best part of my day,” says Tommy Southall, a regular at the cart. “They’re so good,” he says, “and I feel like they’re good for me.” AN ENTREPRENEURIAL HERITAGE Why does someone leave a lucrative law job to become a street vendor? “Certain things in my background made this come together for me,” Tiu says. “From an early age, I’ve always had a respect and admiration for people who owned and operated small businesses — from as early as I can remember.” Running small businesses seems to run in Tiu’s family. “My grandfather came from China,” Tiu says. “He started a family business in the Philippines at an early age by opening a bakery.” Tiu says his dad “grew up in the family business” and delighted his young son with stories about the enterprise. Tiu, who is half Chinese, explains that his family valued entrepreneurship: “It was encouraged, it was admired, it was respected. It was viewed as something very positive.” Fresh out of the University of Cincinnati Law School, Tiu went to work at McKenna & Cuneo in 1991. After a few years, having paid his student loans, he began formulating a plan to start his own business. “There was something compelling me to take active steps toward putting together what I believed would be a viable business,” Tiu says. The idea raised a few eyebrows around the law firm. “I didn’t quite know what to make of” James’ entrepreneurialism, says Thomas Johnston, a former colleague. “It certainly was unusual. But James seemed energized by it. He lit up whenever he talked about” starting his own business, says Johnston, of counsel at McKenna & Cuneo. Tiu left the firm in 1994 and for a short time worked for a street vendor who sold coffee. After learning the business of selling from the sidewalk, Tiu bought his own cart and enjoyed immediate, if moderate, success. The business has “always maintained a positive cash flow,” Tiu says, although he points out, “You don’t get successful quick. You get successful slow.” The business has grown over the last six years, and today it’s flourishing. So is Tiu’s home life. A BUSINESS PARTNER Part of the appeal of a family business is the family. After two years in his new enterprise, Tiu married Patti, who left a job in theater to work with him at the cart. The two of them had worked together before, as volunteers in the young adult community at Holy Trinity Church in Washington. After volunteering together at a soup kitchen, “we knew we worked well together,” Tiu says. As cashier, Patti stands outside the cart. Inside, Tiu is enshrouded in the steam rising from propane food warmers and works in short sleeves. They both know their customers well. “Working in a small-business environment, you cannot avoid learning about your repeat customers, because they are the ones who sustain you,” Tiu says. “Patti and I will often rattle off orders, and we know who the customer is by the order.” Tiu says that when Patti says “flour tortilla, cheddar cheese, refried beans, sour cream, and whatever red sauce I would serve them,” he immediately knows who’s placing the order. But Tiu will always be his own best customer. Even after six years, he still enjoys his own fare — “two a day, easily,” Tiu says. “I get to the cart and the first burrito of the day is reserved for me. I got into this enjoying this food, and I have to be my best customer.” OFF THE SIDEWALK Today, with his wife beside him, business is booming. The line of customers is longer than ever, and Tiu often runs out of burritos before he’s served them all. Tiu says he and Patti are considering moving off the street and into a storefront. “We’d love to do that,” he says. “We have some plans, and we’re always on the lookout for the ideal location.” What’s the secret of his success? “You have to meet and then exceed customers’ expectations every time they come to the cart, and then you have to go one step more,” he says. “You find ways to continue to please your customer without compromising your cash flow.” Liking what you do also helps. “I truly love this work,” he says.

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