Roll Your Own

What can business and nonprofit leaders learn from burritos? Well, maybe quite a lot.

Revolution Accounting is based in a city famous for its food carts, but the truth is even many of the successful carts have a short shelf life. Why is that? Well, it’s a hard life, to be sure. Sales and working conditions are both heavily dependent on vagaries of weather and other events. Although carts don’t have the overhead of brick-and-mortar restaurants, they also are limited in how much they can get customers to pay, even when they’re the best in town. Adding more locations adds to management complexities and can challenge even the best owners to properly delegate and manage quality.



In that environment, it’s kind of amazing that Honkin’ Huge Burritos, Portland’s oldest continuously owned food cart, made it 25 years, starting when Shelly Sorenson opened her window at Pioneer Courthouse Square in 1992. After all this time and maybe a quarter million burritos, Shelly decided it was time to wind it down this summer. The Portland Business Journal recently interviewed her, and here are some of the things I took away from the interview:



Try, Try Again

Shelly’s first menu item was salads. But the first day of business was a rainy one. Nobody wanted salads. So she tried udon noodle stir-fry and found out demand was much better for that – but she couldn’t crank the plates out fast enough. Next she tried healthy Mexican food. Boom! That was the ticket – her cart made more on day one of burritos than the other two attempts combined.

The salad and noodle menus, while they could be called failures, were also instrumental in arriving at the formula that was so successful and gave her something to measure against.

How do you measure the relative success of your strategies?

Process Matters

Twenty-five years ago, believe it or not, most people weren’t thinking, I should totally go to Portland and open a food cart. Shelly included. She came back to Portland from a job in Hollywood and took herself to the library to learn about goal-setting. After reading about the lives of people who had chosen career paths that made them happy, she made a list of six or seven things she was looking for in a career. After that, she let the ideas percolate until she connected with the idea of a cart selling healthy food.

Rather than seeing what could make her wealthy and shaping her ambition to that, Shelly made a conscious effort to make a life that supported what she wanted to create and figured out how that could make her an acceptable living.

How are you defining your process and does it help you shape outcomes that matter to you?

Passion Matters

Shelly Sorenson is adamant that the reason for her longevity in the business is not only setting goals, but, she says, “The secret ingredient was putting passion into the work. I created my dream job.”

Because she started with the passion, she has been able to measure the value of her work not only in dollars but in how the business has let her live her life and her mission. Shelly sees herself as being in service to people, rather than obsessing about costs and profits. “I try to err on the side of generosity because we’re all in this together. The goal for me is not to become wealthy but to make a living.”

What are the results, beyond making money, that you want to see in your enterprise?

Competition Doesn’t Matter

Because Shelly connected her planning and her passion, rather than reacting to the market, she doesn’t suffer from a competitive mind-set. Noting that since she started Honkin’ Huge Burritos, food carts have become a huge part of the Portland landscape, Shelly doesn’t view the competition as a threat, except that it’s become harder to land a good location.

“I try to support it because isn’t it a lovely, beautiful thing about our city that we have this small entrepreneurial spirit that gives flavor to the city and has put us on the map in a way?”

Are you planning your business so that you are more immune to competition?

Wrap It Up

Starting from the simplicity of a burrito cart, the lessons that Shelly Sorenson’s interview teach us can apply to many enterprises. Another lesson that struck me while reading this interview: keep it simple. One of the reasons she was able to grow her empire to 10 carts was that the business was simple and the expectations were easy to understand. How can you simplify your business and connect your planning to your passion?

Revolution Accounting and Advisory helps business and nonprofit leaders and accountants simplify their work lives by implementing Sage Intacct cloud ERP systems that manage the complexities and deliver clear, focused dashboards with the data you need to see.

We can help you define and measure successes of your efforts, refine your processes, map your strategy to your passion and help inoculate your organization from competitive forces.