Shop Talk

Backstory: Restaurant owner wants Raleigh to have Baja burritos

Judy Murray opened Baja Burrito in 1995 as a way to popularize burritos, a West Coast staple, in Raleigh.
Judy Murray opened Baja Burrito in 1995 as a way to popularize burritos, a West Coast staple, in Raleigh. TERI SAYLOR

Baja Burrito turns 20 in November, and owner Judy Murray credits faith, luck and mostly hard work with keeping the small restaurant going since she served up the first burrito in 1995.

The challenging part, she said, was figuring out how to get started.

“I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t even really know how to make burritos,” she said. “It was totally trial and error. I just learned how to do it by going in and working every day.”

It helped that Murray was fully invested in her venture.

Murray, 52, grew up in Matthews. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1984 with a degree in business and no idea what she wanted to do with her life.

Her brother lived near San Francisco, so she moved there and delivered pizza before landing a job with a food broker.

After about eight years, the company she worked for merged with another. San Francisco was becoming crowded and expensive, so Murray moved back to North Carolina, where she lived with her sister in Raleigh.

She took some time off to figure out how to combine her love of the food business with a desire to be her own boss.

In 1995, a California friend convinced her to start selling burritos, a West Coast staple that was unheard of in Raleigh at that time, she said.

Murray liked the area around N.C. State University and located a small seafood restaurant in Mission Valley Shopping Center off of Western Boulevard. She approached the owner, inquiring about the location, and he offered to sell her some of his equipment and let her take over his space.

She paid him $7,000 for the restaurant’s contents, then renovated the 1,500-square-foot space, using $10,000 of her own money and $50,000 she borrowed from a bank.

Murray created a small menu with burritos, tacos and taco salads filled with grilled chicken, sauteed vegetables and steak. She opened with one employee.

“We served a limited menu out of necessity,” she said. “We knew the two of us could not cook an extensive menu and we were very nervous about opening day.”

Four months after opening, a local television station gave Baja Burrito a good review. Murray as out of town on vacation with her family, and the review caused business to go from busy to crazy.

“My employee called and said ‘you have to come back right now,’” Murray recalled. “My whole family and I came back and we all got in the kitchen and started cooking and grilling.”

At that point, Murray knew Baja Burritos would be successful. In the early years, she spent a lot of time teaching people about burritos, and through word of mouth, her customer base got bigger.

In 1999, she opened a second location, this one in North Raleigh. She struggled to find a customer base and closed the restaurant after nine months.

“The restaurant lost money every month, and I was miserable,” she said.

Since then, Murray has deliberately kept her menu small. She now has 10 employees and works about 30 hours a week managing things like bookkeeping and ordering supplies.

“I want to keep it simple so I’m not boxed in,” she said. “I want to be able to leave and go on vacations and not burn out.”

She names passion as her secret to success.

“I didn’t go into this business to get rich. I just wanted to have a nice life and be happy,” she said. “And I really wanted Raleigh to have burritos.”

Reach Teri Saylor at Find her on Twitter @terisaylor.

Advice from Judy Murray

▪ You can’t have one iota of doubt it’s going to work. You have to believe in it otherwise it will be really hard to open.

▪ If your business idea is weighing on you, and you have a very strong yearning for it, then you should do it. If you don’t, you may regret it for the rest of your life.