The Burrito War
Most evenings, sweltering or frigid, the line at Anna's Taqueria backs out onto Beacon Street near Brookline's Coolidge Corner. The burrito chain's three other locations elsewhere in Brookline and in Cambridge and Somerville are crammed at lunchtime, too. The hungry and the frugal queue up here for one reason: cheap, filling, reliably delicious Mexican food. That combination has proved so successful that Anna's burritos have earned this magazine's annual Best of Boston honors no fewer than five times. Anna's customers have even set up fan sites on the Internet.
The patrons at another well-known local burrito joint, Boca Grande, are equally loyal, and the cash registers at that restaurant's three locations in Brookline and Cambridge cha-ching long past the dinner hour.
It's no surprise that a rivalry exists between these two hugely popular chains whose Coolidge Corner branches are just three blocks apart. They share the same basic menu, the same general prices ($3.75 for the large burrito at Anna's, $4.25 at Boca), the same overall strategy of fresh food, fast. Oh, and, unknown to most of their customers, the owners share a last name (and are not Mexican, but Japanese).
Mariko and Michael Kamio are brother and sister, as it happens, and former coworkers, and they don't much like each other. Their split as business associates about a decade ago was bitter; as brother and sister, it's been worse. They haven't spoken to each other in a very long time, which is not to say they don't speak about each other. They're known, in fact, to launch into tirades over who treats employees better, whose food is better, and, when you get right down to it, which restaurant is better. Mariko, who owns Boca, agreed to discuss the feud, which is so bad that she wouldn't get into the more personal elements to spare her mother the anxiety. As for Michael, who owns Anna's, he's not talking to us at all.
Sibling rivalries are the fiercest of rivalries, of course, and this one began in 1986 (unless you believe that all sibling conflict originates in childhood) after Mariko opened her first Boca Grande, in Cambridge. Her younger brother later came on board to manage her stores until they parted ways and he founded Anna's.
Mariko, who says she's in her late forties, worked in marketing until she decided that the corporate world was not for her. She is something of a bon vivant, passionate about food, entertaining, and travel, a “Big-Idea” sort who likes to make the rules. So she opened the burrito shop. “I had access to a lot of marketing data,” she says. “At that time, it showed that Mexican was going to be the fastest-growing ethnic food.” She modeled her restaurant on San Francisco's successful Gordo's Taqueria chain, which is owned by her cousin. In the beginning, she created the recipes, did the cooking, even rolled the burritos.
Mariko says she brought her brother in from San Francisco to manage Boca Grande, freeing her from day-to-day responsibilities. She says the business relationship was rocky. She won't get into specifics, though she suspects that some of the problems lay in lingering little-brother resentment. She acknowledges, however, that Michael may have felt constrained by her firm ideas of how he should do his job. “We eventually didn't get along,” she says.
In 1995, Michael opened his first Anna's Taqueria, in Coolidge Corner. In newspaper interviews, he cited his cousin's Bay Area restaurants as his model, never mentioning the five years he spent with his sister.
“He carries a grudge,” Mariko says. “He definitely considers me competition.” Then again, it was Mariko who opened a Boca in Coolidge Corner in 2000, just a few blocks from her brother's restaurant.
“My brother does a very good marketing job,” Mariko says. “The difference is he appeals to the very young kids who want a fast meal. Originally, I'm a cook. All of the decisions are made based on recipes and flavors. He's not a cook.” She believes that “spies” from Anna's come to Boca and try to buy samples of her secret sauces. “We know who they are now,” Mariko says. “We won't sell to them.” Oh, yeah, she says, and at her brother's restaurants, “I hear the help is a bit surly.” Those who have spoken with Michael about it say he has similar sentiments about his sister's business.
The last time Mariko and Michael spoke to, rather than about, each other was in 1996 at their father's funeral. “My father was the nicest man,” Mariko says. “I said, 'Mike, let's put this behind us.' I'm always hopeful that he's going to come around.”
She says Michael may have been better served by starting out on his own, getting out from under his big sister's shadow. The way things were, she says, “It wasn't doing me any good. It wasn't doing him any good.” In any case, she says it's time for her to move on from the drama. “I don't want that type of misery in my life and being aggravated by it. He's not important.”