You won’t find Downing Barber, the eponymous founder of Barberitos, in a sprawling executive suite on the top floor of corporate offices on Milledge Avenue.
When you enter the graceful white franchise headquarters, Barber’s office greets you just inside the door. This strategic location means the head of the Southwestern chain can meet everyone who passes through. And that’s just the way Downing Barber wants it. His rise from operating a struggling burrito startup to helming a thriving brand with 52 US locations was built on a simple recipe: good food, good people serving it, and good work in the community.
“I cooked a lot growing up,” Barber informs me, his baritone tinctured by a familiar drawl that betrays his Waycross origins. During summers on Jekyll Island, he served in the kitchen at Denny’s. He worked his way through Valdosta State cooking at Fiddler’s Green and The Tavern. Back then, he saw restaurant work as a means to an end. When he collected his degree and headed to Mercer to study international business, he exchanged his skillet for a suitcase, and headed to Europe.
But his time in Scotland and Belgium left him questioning the trajectory of his career. He relished his travels, but had a hard time envisioning himself as an itinerant deal-maker for multinational corporations. So, to figure out his next steps, Barber relocated to Aspen, where he could reconsider his prospects in a picturesque resort town.
Aspen proved a turning point for his life. He took a position as a bellman, picking up well-heeled entrepreneurs when their Learjets landed. Never a stranger, Barber liked questioning these clients about what they did, how they achieved success, and what lessons they’d learned in the process. It was an invaluable opportunity to speak directly with business leaders of the day. Many of the insights he gleaned from this experience continue to inform his work today.
If this job provided invaluable networking and informal training for his future, it didn’t exactly compensate him handsomely in the present. “I didn’t have much in Aspen,” he recalls. Getting by on his salary in this affluent enclave took creativity. From his colleagues on the job, he quickly discovered the best way to fill your stomach on a budget: Underground Aspen. For a few dollars, you could score a burrito bursting with fresh ingredients with extra chips on the side. The flavor was a revelation to the Georgia transplant, who’d never sampled anything like this Southwestern fare. It was love at first bite.
After casting about with some offers to return to the South and work at Coca-Cola or Home Depot, Barber hit upon a bolder plan. What if he could introduce the burritos he’d discovered in Aspen to denizens of his home state? He was confident they’d make a splash in the South, where people love to gather around a table to share a good meal and banter with each other. He had experience in the kitchen. He had business degrees and a lot of informal training in entrepreneurship from his time in Aspen. It was all coming together.
So, in November 1999, he invested his life savings into an East Clayton Street storefront in Athens, christening his eatery Barberitos. Long familiar with the Classic City— his dad and brother had played football for the Bulldogs — and Saturdays in the fall, his family would rise early to head to Athens for game day festivities. He brimmed with confidence about what his burritos would do for college students, townies, and tailgaters.
The first Barberitos opened in February 2000, and it initially didn’t go as planned. “We made $180 or so at our grand opening,” he remembers with a chuckle. It wasn’t so funny then. He hadn’t yet developed an effective marketing strategy, so the only diners he attracted were curious pedestrians who wondered what was going on inside. They liked the food he was serving, but didn’t represent enough of a critical mass to move the needle. After a few months in operation, he had hemorrhaged $60,000. If demand didn’t pick up soon, he’d have to fold.
Serendipity intervened in the form of a football game. Since 1988, Tennessee had (metaphorically) owned Georgia, winning twelve straight against their archrivals. But October 10, 2000, the Bulldogs flipped the script on the Volunteers, triumphing in a 21-10 thriller. Rapturous fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts. They rang the Chapel Bell into the wee hours, screamed themselves hoarse, and drank themselves into stupor.
All that riotous celebrating left them famished, and that’s when Barber saw his chance. He ran outside and began waving hungry fans inside. Students and alums streamed in, filled their plates, then told their friends about the burritos. The restaurant cleared thousands and thousands that day. More importantly, it established its reputation once and for all. Many regulars at the restaurant still recall that magical night when the Dawgs beat the Vols and they discovered Barberitos.
Once moribund, the fledgling restaurant took flight. Hordes of students and townies now frequented the Southwestern food hotspot. One day, a regular pitched a crazy idea: would he be interested in franchising? Barber hadn’t considered it; he’d been so preoccupied with keeping pace with demand that expansion had never occurred to him. He wondered if he could replicate the success he’d achieved elsewhere. But his friend was persistent, and he found the concept intriguing. So he went for it. Out of this partnership, the Barberitos on Epps Bridge became the first descendent of their flagship store.
That small seed has produced a bumper crop over the past two decades thanks to a consistent focus on selecting quality food, the right personnel, and cultivation of meaningful connections to the community. Today, Barber oversees 52 locations across Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Alabama. Everything served at Barberitos is made from farm-fresh, regionally sourced ingredients. It’s more expensive than the reheated formula fare served at many fast food conglomerates, but the founder wouldn’t have it any other way. Barber has shown similar care in how he scales his business. He handpicks his franchisees, and invests in their personal growth, not just their revenue-generating potential. These owners take that mentality to heart; they aren’t just slinging burritos, they’re active in their communities. Barber is hard at work on two initiatives to deepen this commitment: a pledge to reinvest 1% of profits into local charities and schools, and a quest to get to zero waste. It’s not easy, but it’s the right thing to do.
It’s been a long journey from the kitchen to corporate, but Downing Barber hasn’t changed his approach much over time. People, not processes, still drive his work. He’s as committed as ever to serving his community the best food he can. And he still loves connecting with the folks around him who have helped fuel the trajectory of Barberitos growth over the years. He may be presiding over a successful, evolving business, but Barber stays rooted in what got him this far. “I’m a people person,” he avows. “Always have been.”
It’s the reason he’s kept his office near the door of corporate headquarters — perfectly situated to greet everyone who passes through, and strategically open to whatever opportunities come his way.