What's a Naked Burrito?
Ethical bowls in an unexpected spot
From the June, 2019 issue
Naked Burrito's stainless counter full of pick-your-own ingredients may look like that of many fast-casual Mexican restaurants, but look closer, and you'll see eccentric options like mango salsa, organic kale chorizo soup, house-made butternut squash soup, chocolate mole sauce, five-spice duck, and spicy cumin lamb. "You won't find that at Chipotle," says owner Daisy Howlind. She and her husband, Vincent Zhang, opened the southeast-side restaurant in early May.
Like other "bowl" restaurants, customers walk up to the counter and go down the line to select rices, sauces, meats, and vegetables. Vegan and vegetarian options abound, plus halal chicken and locally sourced black beans. True to its name, Naked Burrito only offers burritos loose in a bowl-no tortilla. The prices are roughly the same as those at Chipotle and Qdoba.
Naked Burrito is located in the small strip mall at the northeast corner of Carpenter and Packard. "That's a plus and a minus," says Howlind. "We're right next to Ann Arbor but also kind of a hidden plaza, and people might not be used to coming here for this kind of food ... We'll hopefully pull from Ypsi and Ann Arbor."
Another thing you might not expect in that location is an emphasis on social and environmental consciousness. While they aren't at zero waste yet, the two are working tirelessly to get there. "It's very difficult to be completely zero waste," Zhang laments. "We can do everything right and then in the morning get a shipment of tomatoes in Styrofoam. Supplies come in plastic wrap and stuff. It's so entrenched in the whole system. But we do everything we can."
"All of our straws, cups, bowls, everything is compostable, mostly in a commercial facility," Howlind says. Instead of paper towels, their bathrooms are stocked with fresh washcloths, which customers can throw in a hamper when they are done drying.
In their opening week, they were still working on getting their landlord to provide a recycling bin out back. Till then, they
were hauling their recyclables to their Ypsilanti dance apparel company, VEdance. Zhang started VE in 2007 while still a student at the U-M. He and Howlind both wear many hats: on top of owning VE and dancing competitively, she has worked in food service for many years, while Zhang works as a real estate agent and a freelance software developer. The couple currently live in Ypsilanti with their infant daughter, Liana.
On the social end of things, Howlind and Zhang have posted statements in the window in support of breastfeeding mothers and undocumented immigrants. The bathroom doors each sport an icon of a man, an icon of a woman, a wheelchair icon, and a playful icon of a pirate saying "arrrgh." "The guy who did our tables is transgender," says Howlind, "so I wanted to acknowledge it."
Most of the restaurant's interior was designed and constructed by the couple and their family and friends. Plaques on the tables inform patrons of their locally reclaimed wood and the friend who built them; metal art was done by Howlind's father, while the fresh flowers from nearby Thrifty Florist are housed in vintage vases.
They acknowledge that their social and environmental goals may not be an easy sell on the edge of town. "It's a giant risk, and with any risk there's a chance that we may not make it, but we believe in creating social change," says Zhang. "I think this city will benefit from having us here."
Naked Burrito, 2871 Carpenter. (734) 369-4613. Daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m. naked-burrito.com
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