In July 1995, Willy Bitter opened the first Willy’s Mexicana Grill in Atlanta, specializing in big “California-Style” stuffed burritos, tacos, quesadillas and made-from-scratch sauces and a selection of Mexican beers. His simple but fresh food concept has been a success for the fast-casual format. This year Bitter opened his 15th restaurant in the metro Atlanta area and has a growing catering operation. See our story, inside.

BITTER SPICES UP FRESH, FAST, MEXICAN FOOD

As a child, Willy Bitter set his sights on becoming a marine biologist. But, as so often happens, his path changed, and the Asheville, N.C., native obtained a degree in economics from the University of North Carolina. Following a stint living, working and sampling authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex food in San Francisco, Bitter returned to the South with one thing on his mind. But it wasn’t economics or marine biology — it was burritos!

In July 1995, Bitter opened the first Willy’s Mexicana Grill in Atlanta, specializing in big “California-Style” stuffed burritos, along with tacos, quesadillas and made-from-scratch sauces, guacamole and a selection of Mexican beers. Once word of Willy’s got out, customers flocked to the simple but fresh concept where orders were customized to the diner’s preferences. The ambiance also was inviting — designed with warm colors and the look of “a funky, colorful burrito joint,” according to Bitter. In 2005, he opened his 15th restaurant in the metro Atlanta area. There’s also a kiosk in an office building in Midtown Atlanta as well as a growing catering operation.

Bitter, 39, recently spoke with Senior Staff Writer Mindy McBain about Willy’s Mexicana Grill and its success in the Atlanta market.

What is the primary focus of Willy’s Mexicana Grill?

It’s mainly a focus on fresh ingredients. We make everything in the restaurant; we make our guacamole twice a day; we make our salsa every day. I guess “California,” equating that with fresh, is what we’re trying to do.

You opened in ’95, yet fast-casual didn’t really take off until about three years ago. Were you ahead of the curve?

I’d been out to California, I had seen how popular it was out there, and there was nothing really like that in this area. I figured as along as I can get good food out there and get a good location, people will come. Everybody knows our burritos, but they can customize them exactly the way they want, and they get a huge amount of food for a great price. I knew that people liked good food at a good price, and they like it quick.