In Boston, all politics is ’Loco

A simple city event wound up pitting mayoral pique against a burrito maker’s overheated tweet

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / April 23, 2011

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It seemed like a feel-good idea: Boloco, the hip burrito chain, would provide free burritos to the first 200 people who showed up wearing a bike helmet at Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s unveiling of the city’s new bike-sharing program.

Boloco would enjoy some goodwill from the public. The city would get attention for its program. And the rest of us? We might get a free lunch.

But what ensued was nothing less than a burrito brouhaha involving hot tempers, a Twitter tirade, and a tense phone call between the mayor and John S. Pepper, Boloco’s chief executive and Boston’s best-known burrito magnate.

As with so many City Hall spats, this one involved complaints about red tape and rudeness.

It all started with a call Wednesday from a Menino aide at City Hall, asking Boloco to donate burritos for the mayor’s bike event. Boloco, which counts Menino as a customer and opened its School Street location with a mayoral ribbon-cutting two years ago, agreed. “We said, without hesitation, ‘Absolutely,’ ’’ Pepper said.

The next morning, Boloco’s burrito stuffers began rolling flour tortillas with rice, buffalo chicken, Teriyaki chicken, and vegetables. Then City Hall called Boloco with a question: Where’s your permit? Any food served at an outdoor event, the company was told, needs the proper paperwork from the Inspectional Services Department.

Pepper said he was taken aback. The company, whose name stands for Boston Local Company, prides itself on being a good corporate citizen.

The bureaucratic demand, he said, was a strange way to thank him for his little foil-wrapped gifts to the city.

“If we’re just donating 200 burritos,’’ he said yesterday, “why do we need a permit?’’

But City Hall did not back down. Pepper and inspectional services officials traded heated calls. Pepper says one inspector warned a Boloco manager that if he did not get the proper permit, the city could shut down Boloco’s Federal Street location, where the free burritos were being made.

With an hour to spare before the event, Pepper dispatched an employee to inspectional services headquarters, and the employee paid $30 for the permit. The burritos made it to City Hall Plaza on time and into the bellies of helmet-wearing cyclists. But Pepper, still smarting, took to Boloco’s Twitter account, which has more than 5,580 followers.

“How a city can thank businesses for supporting its civic efforts with rudeness, threats, and disrespect has us reeling today,’’ he wrote Thursday. “Not staying quiet any longer. Between the union rackets, bureaucracy, red tape, and lack of graciousness, it’s a wonder anything gets done.’’

He added: “By the way, these tweets 100% represent the view of the CEO of company. That’s me. And yes, I’ve double-checked the locks on my doors.’’

Pepper also took to Boloco’s Facebook page, which connects to more than 6,400 people.

In a pointed poke at City Hall, he offered free burritos to the first 200 people who posted thank you notes on the page. The latest round of free burritos, he wrote, would “make up for the 200 we gave away to a ‘cause’ that shall remain nameless but needs to learn how to say thank you properly. Oh . . . no bike helmet required!’’

The mayor, asked about the burrito fracas yesterday, was clearly incensed. “He wants to blog, make news?’’ Menino said. “OK, you do your blog.’’

He refused to discuss the issue in detail. “As soon as we found out, we gave him a permit,’’ Menino said. “I’m not going to debate what was said.’’

A spokeswoman followed up with a written statement: “The city hosted a terrific event yesterday in which participants enjoyed donated food by a local business, and any issue involving the permitting was quickly resolved.’’

Later yesterday, the mayor called Pepper, and the two rehashed the food fight. Afterward, Pepper sounded almost contrite.

“He and I are both frustrated by bureaucracy in general, and I pledged at least three times that I would do whatever I can to help in any way I could,’’ Pepper said. “I’m hopeful we can work this out.’’

Asked how Menino responded, Pepper said, “I think he thinks I could have gone about this in a more positive manner.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at