When Eugene Cleghorn and Sam Neely moved to New York from San Francisco back in 2007, they realized they had a problem. “There were, like, no burritos,” said Cleghorn. They had grown up chowing down on Mission-style burritos, the steamed and stuffed gut bombs pioneered in their hometown as a cheap eat for hungry workers. But in New York, pizza had always played that role, and the burrito had never taken hold. The duo decided that, one day, they would make this city taste a real burrito.
Today, Cleghorn and Neely are taking the next big step on their quest. After three years of running the popular Super Burrito stand on the Rockaway Beach boardwalk, they’ve moved to a year-round brick-and-mortar just a couple minutes away. At 190 Beach 69th St. in Arverne, in what looks like the platonic cozy arcade of your childhood dreams, they will be serving up their well-honed chicken, steak, and al pastor pork in burritos, quesadillas, bowls, and now even tacos.
The two started building the new location months ago, before phrases like “social distancing” and “hydroxychloroquine” entered the common vernacular, but they’re surprisingly un-stressed about opening a restaurant during a global pandemic. According to Cleghorn, many eateries in Rockaway are enjoying the busiest year they’ve ever had, presumably because commuters are now eating all their meals locally. “Everyone with takeout and delivery is setting sales records,” he said.
Besides, Cleghorn says that since May he has been getting daily texts and calls from longtime Super Burrito fans wondering when the new location will be ready: “Like, ‘Are you open yet? Are you open yet?’ I think this summer we’re going to be busy as soon as we open.”
Weighing more heavily on Cleghorn’s mind is the shock of actually owning a bonafide, year-round business. He and Neely had been planning to conquer New York’s burrito market for years, but even when they first got their seasonal boardwalk location three years ago, Cleghorn couldn’t quite believe it. “I kind of cried a little bit,” he admitted. “I just thought I was going to be broke all my life, and that’s fine. Because I’m used to it—I was broke ever since I was a kid.”
Growing up with his mom, Cleghorn bore the brunt of the gentrification that has now redefined San Francisco. He remembers being forcibly evicted, and always moving from house to house. “Sometimes I wouldn’t even unpack my boxes,” he said.
Cleghorn and Neely met in high school, at first not on great terms. “I wasn’t the biggest fan of him,” said Neely, “because I knew this girl that I liked actually liked him.” But once they ended up getting to know each other on a beach trip to Santa Barbara, “that’s when we realized we were in sync with each other.” They became close friends. Both ended up moving to New York after graduation, flipping burgers across the city before ending up in Rockaway, where the waterside microclimate and laid-back energy reminded them of home.
They moved from restaurant to restaurant, working in churn-and-burn eateries that would stress out even a Michelin-star chef, all the while learning the fine art of things like braising, searing, pickling, and deglazing. “I didn’t really have the aspiration to become a chef,” said Cleghorn. But after a while, they realized they could do the San Francisco burrito justice in the East Coast.
A far cry from his childhood, Cleghorn has now found himself meeting with real estate developers and signing leases. The question currently facing them as business owners is how to deal with their newfound responsibility. “I’ve always been a worker,” he said. “Now that I’m in this position, we can make really good choices.” Choices like giving their employees healthcare, or having a profit-sharing system, or letting workers decide how to spend the company’s earnings. Becoming a burrito baron is out of the question. “I don’t want to get this rabbit hole of wanting more money,” he said. “It’s just Rosebud, dude.”
Which also might explain the West Coast, take-it-as-it-comes attitude about opening amid an economic crisis. Starting a restaurant is a risky undertaking in any circumstances, but even if Super Burrito somehow can’t weather the coronavirus storm, said Cleghorn, it’ll be “a drop in the bucket” of a wider catastrophe. “We’re all in it together,” he added. “Having those moments of unity and solidarity is way more powerful than making a buck.”
Super Burrito is located on 190 Beach 69th St. in Arverne, NY, open daily for takeout 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., with delivery coming soon.