2018 | Dine

California Tortilla Co-Founder Stepping Down after 23 Years

First restaurant in Bethesda grew into franchised chain with 40 locations

Charlie Wright

The self-proclaimed Queen of Burritos is stepping down in February after a 23-year reign in Bethesda.

California Tortilla co-founder Pam Felix said she is selling her stake in the original restaurant to the corporation that acquired the company in 2003 and began a national expansion program with franchises.

The restaurant became known for its zany humor and outrageous promotions, including wax lips giveaways, Pop-Tarts raffles and even cash back when the wind chill dropped below zero.

“People just embraced us,” Felix said. “We started pretty slowly, then we started to have fun with it and do a bunch of goofy, fun things and the Bethesda customers were amazing.”

Felix started the Mexican chain in 1995 with co-founder Alan Cohen, who retired in 2014.

“It is safe to say that the company wouldn’t be here without her,” California Tortilla president Bob Phillips said in an email. “Pam’s vision of customer service and creative yet fun marketing promotions are still the foundation of our brand.”

Since the first store opened at 4862 Cordell Ave., California Tortilla has grown to more than 40 locations along the East Coast and three in Qatar. Felix still owns a part of the corporate operations, she’ll just be giving up management of the flagship Bethesda location.

“They’ve done a great job of keeping the consistency,” Felix said. “We’re all about the freshness of the food and they’ve done a great job keeping that consistent across the stores, but you still have the feeling that it’s not a gigantic chain.”

Felix leaves behind several employees who have been with the restaurant for two decades, including one who’s worked there for all 23 years.

“We have a skilled team of restaurant professionals who will work with the existing Bethesda team,” Phillips said. “We do not expect that the customers will notice a change and plan to continue executing Pam’s original vision.”

Felix doesn’t have a hands on role in the franchising operation. Franchising reports from 2017 note locations have an average annual sales volume of nearly $1 million.

The original California Tortilla moved to a larger space at 4871 Cordell Ave. in 2012 and business jumped by 50 percent, Felix said.

Felix, also the owner of the DC Improv Comedy Club, said she entered the fast-casual restaurant business because there weren’t many places in the area at the time. The California Tortilla brand has always been as much about zany humor as it is quesadillas and nachos, she said.

“If you have people laughing, then you’re going to like that place,” Felix said. “Obviously the food has to be good, that’s the minimum point of entry, but it’s sort of that extra thing.”

The silly atmosphere drew a few professional funny men to the restaurant, including comedians David Spade and Ray Romano. Politicians stopped by as well, and Felix held a congressional burrito contest in 2000. Chris Van Hollen, now a U.S. senator, knocked off Rep. Connie Morella in the contest, then subsequently beat her in an election for a seat in the House of Representatives, with Felix taking credit for his victory.

Felix, who declined to give her age, said the industry has changed drastically since California Tortilla’s inception, namely with the rise of third-party delivery and the use of the internet.

Competition from the likes of Chipotle and Baja Fresh have pushed the company to work harder, but positive human interaction remains its primary goal.

“Especially now, people want great customer service but want it to be personalized,” Felix said. “Everybody wants to make a connection, and I think we made that connection from the very beginning.”