Dean Vilone has entrepreneurial genes – his grandfather was a successful, self-made builder responsible for developments including the Fairfax neighborhood and shopping center, Lancashire and, of course, Vilone Village, as well as others throughout New Castle County.
The Sallies grad himself pursued a career in bars and restaurants after college, but for a time, cooled on that challenging career path. But eight years ago passion drew him back into the business, and luck and good timing led him to open the first of his now four wildly popular El Diablo burrito stores in Trolley Square.
Vilone cut the ribbon this month on his newest location in Pike Creek – and the Delaware burrito king kindly gave us a few minutes to talk about his journey in restauranting, the inspiration behind the El Diablo concept and how he works to ensure customers continue to encounter a positive “vibe” as the business expands.
TownSquareDelaware: You’ve been in the hospitality business since graduating from college but El Diablo was a bit of a departure from your previous businesses. What was the inspiration for the casual, fast-service burrito concept?
Dean Vilone: Basically, I was out of the business for a while and was itching to get back in it. I was exploring a number of different concepts and scouting New Castle County for a location that I liked and could afford. As the effects of the 2008 bubble burst kept unfolding, the spot in Trolley Square became available and seemed reasonable. So I went for it.
As for narrowing down the concept, I have to give the credit to my girlfriend at the time who said, “Just do burritos, it’s what they’ll want,” referring to the younger clientele of Trolley Square. I can still hear her saying it. And, I listened!
At that time, I hadn’t even met my soon-to-be business partners. Life moved some mighty big pieces around and Roger Andrews (former sous chef at 821) and Shannon Stevens (founding partner of Essentia Creative and now partner and creative director at Shiny Advertising) entered my life almost as if on cue. I knew both possessed tremendous talent and approached them about teaming up. Fortunately both said yes.
Then the details and identity of the brand came out of a fairly intense, month-long collaboration between Roger, Shannon and myself. We didn’t know each other well yet, but we could feel the pieces coming together. That process was one of the best experiences in my life, and I am honored to call them my business partners and friends today.
TSD: So is that when your black bean devil with a pitchfork concept sprung to life?
DV: Not everyone realizes the armless devil is a black bean spearing a burrito. But yes, Shannon came up with that tongue and cheek image for our brand, and I thought it was great the moment I saw it. We think it has worked really well with the aesthetic at our locations, which he also designs. The interior spaces are designed to feel fun and welcoming, but modern and clean at the same time. The interior of each store has evolved over time, but they are mainly mid-century modern in inspiration – with long expansive ‘floating’ ceilings, lots of right angles, and brightly colored mosaic tile.
TSD: Was it always your intent to grow the business across multiple locations?
DV: The idea for expanding started to feel like a real possibility about one year after we had opened. The first year was really dedicated to hammering out our system and having fun in the Trolley store. But as our popularity grew, the idea of a second location took root and we didn’t second guess it. We just went with it. From there, it took almost a full year to put together all the financing.
Then, when the second store finally opened in North Wilmington’s Branmar Plaza, it took longer than we expected to catch on. It was a very stressful time, but we were learning and paying our dues. We probably could have vetted the decision more thoroughly, but I guess it was that mix of stupidity, ambition, and stubbornness that carried us through all the problems associated with making the jump from one store to two. It wasn’t pretty but we did it. Looking back, I was exhausted and stressed, but I felt alive because I believed in it. Pretty neat time in hindsight.
TSD: How do you navigate the challenges that so many successful restaurateurs face around expansion – that is, taking a winning model and trying to replicate it at some scale, without losing the quality and vibe that made the original locations so popular to begin with?
DV: Expanding and holding on to the original vibe is tough. But we’ve tried because our culture is important to us. We believe one way to retain our ethos is to look at our expansion as more of a ground war, and less of an air war.
Most of our managers are hired from within and have worked their way to that role by demonstrating a combination of caring, strength, positivity, humility, and discipline.
And of course, communication is super important, so the managers and/or shift leaders of each store have sit down talks with all team members individually every two weeks. These talks may be about performance, but not necessarily. We encourage them to be more human scale and sincere. We’ve found that genuine connection between team members and shift leaders and managers is really where the magic is. And then, as owners and district managers, we try to not micromanage, but rather be there for support and mentorship as needed.
TSD: Speaking of that – cheerful, look-me-in-the-eye-and-smile service is an El Diablo hallmark. Many frequent restaurant-goers are amazed at how few businesses seem to pay attention to that basic approach to customer service. How do you create a culture where that is second nature to your team?
DV: We try to provide a supportive, fun, and open environment for our team members in the hopes that everyone’s own individual spirit will be lit and that energy transfers to a positive guest experience. It feels more real to us than some middle-aged guy (me) lecturing about customer service. Of course we are an organization of people so things aren’t always perfect, and at any given moment, someone might have a bad experience. We hate when it happens, but when it does we typically try to make it right, learn from it, and move forward.
TSD: Life hasn’t always been a straight path for you. Does the recovery experience impact the way you run the restaurants?
DV: That’s an interesting question. Once El Diablo was a hit, I realized that I had to educate myself on the best way to move forward, so I started reading articles and listening to audiobooks on leadership, management, and business. And I found an interesting overlap in what I was learning in recovery and what I was learning about leadership and management.
Organizations are made up of people, so it made sense that what was helping to keep me healthy as a person would also benefit the company. I’m sure we fail from time to time but we generally try to approach what we do with an overall sense of humility, and we try to build our teams from a perspective of connection, rather than correction, in hopes of keeping it human scale. And we are recovery friendly in our hiring. That doesn’t mean that everyone on our team is in recovery, but we try to extend a hand when we can. Our approach isn’t perfect and might not be for everyone, but it seems to work for us, mostly, and we like it.
TSD: So what’s next for you and El Diablo? More locations? Franchising? Or are you exploring other concepts?
DV: We try not to plan it out too far and prefer a more organic, as it unfolds, approach. We do have a few locations in mind, but we feel like semi-slow growth is part of our success. So we’ll see. In the meantime, we’d like to look inside and get a little better at what we currently do… like offer desserts, beverage alternatives, and more vegetarian options.
TSD: Tell us something most people may not know about Dean Vilone.
DV: I’m kind of an introvert. And I usually find clarity and my best ideas while traveling alone for one or two weeks. In fact, I think I’d probably love being a full time gypsy. But I’m not sure if the bank would be too keen on that.