Chaya Weiner
Jul 15 · 5 min read

If you’re not working with a group of people you love and if you don’t feel appreciated, it would be easy to be miserable at work. Two of our values are We R Family and Fueled by Fun. When people know that you encourage a fun environment and that they’re cared for, it makes all the difference.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Willy Bitter, founder and Chief Burrito Roller at Willy’s Mexicana Grill. Bitter was born in Columbus, OH and raised in Asheville, NC. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1988 with a degree in economics before heading west where he awakened his love for burritos. It was there, specifically in the Mission District of San Francisco, where Bitter had his first California-style burrito; full, fresh and unlike anything he had ever tasted. He didn’t have a car, so he would use several modes of transportation to satisfy his craving for fresh burritos. Bitter’s entrepreneurial journey into the restaurant industry was nontraditional but filled with passion and determination. Full of ideas, he returned to Atlanta in 1992, with no experience and no money, determined to find a way to bring huge, fresh burritos to the Peach State. Working as a bartender and manager in restaurants, Bitter researched recipes and restaurant management, sought out investors and put together a business plan in his personal time. After extensive support from his family clan in construction, painting and bookkeeping, the first Willy’s Mexicana Grill opened in Buckhead, GA in July 1995. It took a little while for the concept to catch on, but eventually the word got out that Willy’s was the go-to destination for delicious, fresh burritos. After his first restaurant became a huge success, with lines to the parking lot, Bitter opened a second location in 1998. Today, there are more than 30 locations across the Atlanta metro area. While there are some discussions about franchising, Bitter’s focus remains the same as it did in 1995. He’s dedicated to finding ways to improve his recipes and only sources the freshest ingredients to serve and satisfy customers. His philosophy is simple — provide quality food, outstanding service and an amazing culture in the restaurant that leaves guests hungry for more.


Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It all began when I lived in San Francisco and became addicted to burritos. It was unlike anything I’d had before, and it became my passion to bring that quality to Atlanta. That’s how Willy’s was born and I’m still in pursuit of sharing the best ingredients and bold flavors with every guest we serve.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The beginning probably still goes down as the most interesting — our first location was truly a family affair! Diana, my sister, created the logo. She and my mom painted while I laid flooring with contractors. I even had a huge marlin I brought in to decorate with but they tried to veto it.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re working on a ton of great initiatives but none more important than our cultural focus as a company. We’ve always worked to create a great work environment but we recently articulated our core values and are working with our leadership and management teams to bring them more to life in every store.

According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

If you’re not working with a group of people you love and if you don’t feel appreciated, it would be easy to be miserable at work. Two of our values are We R Family and Fueled by Fun. When people know that you encourage a fun environment and that they’re cared for, it makes all the difference.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

It’s simple. We’re in the people business, we just happen to be selling burritos. So, if our people aren’t happy, the guests feel it. If guests aren’t happy, they don’t come back.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

We recently worked with a woman that has helped us bring new clarity to our approach to work culture. So, if you don’t have a plan, I’d start there. Once you’ve articulated your values, you must live them in all you do. You have to walk the talk and that starts with leaders. You have to hire and fire by them and also build a culture that recognizes those that are showing up and living the culture daily.

What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

We have to give people a chance to disconnect. It’s simply unnatural for people to be wired and plugged in all the time.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I’m really a food guy at heart so I empower my team to run and push the business. That said, I’m quality crazed (it’s one of our values) and I’m the first to jump in and provide direct coaching if I feel we’re not living up to that. I’m definitely more comfortable rolling up my sleeves in the stores rather than being in the office.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I owe thanks to a ton of people, but one is my sister, Diana. She jumped in to help in a million ways and has been leading our marketing for years. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the role she has played in helping me build Willy’s but it was a critical one.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I certainly believe we bring burrito goodness to the world! If you haven’t had a Willy’s burrito, I hope you’ll come to ATL and try one! Beyond that, we’re building friendships, helping families reach their goals and giving back to the ATL community in a lot of different ways. Living Willy’s Way daily is really all about serving up fun, friendship and flavor with every burrito we roll, in every community we serve.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Work hard and treat your team like you would want to be treated!

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Thank you for all of these great insights!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Chaya Weiner

Written by

Director of branding & photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator, helping leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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