The queue at Taqueria d’El Jefe stretches to the door. It’s 1:40 a.m., in the wee hours of Sunday morning, and loads of college students anxiously await their late-night burritos.
This is the brainchild of John Schall, the latest creation in a wild career that has taken him from Marxist economics to waste management policy to restaurant entrepreneurship.
Schall, 70, is the owner of El Jefe’s, a fast-casual Mexican burrito chain with locations on college campuses in the Northeast, including Huntington Avenue. Schall’s elaborate career path reflects an ambitious and confident entrepreneur who is not afraid to bet on himself and take bold risks.
After graduating from the radicalized economics department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the 1970s, he co-founded South End Press, an egalitarian Boston newspaper in 1976. Needing to make a living in a sustainable way, Schall s’ turned to waste management research and policy development in the 1980s, becoming Massachusetts first recycling director in 1984 and later a graduate professor of waste management policy at Yale University.
Schall’s career came to a crossroads with a job he ultimately didn’t get. He had accepted the position of vice president of recycling operations at USA Waste, America’s third largest solid waste company, and had already shipped his goods to Dallas, Texas, in preparation for his new job.
“Literally on the way, they found out I had this radical past,” Schall said. “Because they went to Wall Street and places like that, having a guy coming out of a Marxist economics department didn’t sound like a good idea to them… so they canceled the offer. ”
After the rejection of USA Waste at the 11th hour, Schall decided he was once again ready for new ambitions. As Schall describes it, he was having lunch with a friend at a Mongolian barbecue restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1996 when an idea occurred to him: Schall should open a restaurant like the one where he dined, except that he could do it more. big and better.
“I don’t think I have a short attention span,” Schall said. “But it seems in my life I’ve had an attention span of six or seven years, and once things are in place it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, what’s next? ? “”
Schall’s entrepreneurial spirit took over, laying the foundations for his new career in real time. “I spent the next 20 minutes grilling the servers and writing everything down on a napkin, and that was the original idea for Fire and Ice,” Schall said.
The restaurant industry has been a dramatic transition from the waste management industry. But for Schall, everything clicked. “When I sat in that restaurant that day, I thought, ‘This could be huge,’ and I might sell it someday and fund the kind of work I want to do on my own. “
The sudden and drastic career change took those closest to Schall by surprise, like his son Justin. “My dad basically had this midlife crisis,” said Justin Schall. “And we were like, ‘Dad, do you really need to open a restaurant? “
But despite having no experience or experience in the restaurant business, just 11 months after that lunch in Ann Arbor, Schall opened the first Fire and Ice in Harvard Square alongside his business partner Jim Miller. Fire and Ice was a 250-seat destination barbecue restaurant described by the Boston Globe like “Mongolian barbecue rose to 11”. Fire and Ice opened with great fanfare and was an immediate success, and in four years two more locations have opened.
But Schall’s grand vision of an Empire of Fire and Ice never materialized. After leaving the company in 2000 due to turmoil in the management ranks, Schall returned to Fire and Ice in 2007 to operate its original location in Harvard Square. Although the exploitation of the singular location enabled Schall to make a decent living, by 2015 his ambitions had once again taken him elsewhere.
“You have to know when things are done, when it’s time to do something else. And I knew Fire and Ice had run its course, ”Schall said.
Schall’s next business remained in the restaurant business, but changed focus. He opened the first Taqueria d’El Jefe just steps from Fire and Ice in Harvard Square, focusing on late-night service and flat rates. With no experience in Mexican cooking, Schall turned to a trusted source for recipes: Fidencio Saavedra, cook at Fire and Ice for eight years under Schall. Saavedra is Mexican-American and her roots are crucial to the authentic quality of El Jefe’s food.
“Everything we cook at El Jefe is Fidencio and passed down through generations of family recipes,” said Schall.
El Jefe’s, like Fire and Ice before it, was successful early on. But this time, Schall was committed to running a business that would grow organically and empower its employees. Andres Lysandroupolos started 15 years ago as a Fire and Ice dishwasher, and is now General Manager of the El Jefe site in Bethelhem, PA. Twin brothers Fernando Cesario Sanchez and Cesario Fernanado Sanchez have worked for Schall since 1997, working their way up the corporate ladder to senior management positions.
“It’s like I have a second apple bite,” Schall said.
But Schall believes his success with El Jefe is complete. He continues to work on passionate initiatives and projects, like battling what he called an “oligopoly” of third-party delivery services like UberEats and DoorDash. At the height of the economic difficulties of the restaurant industry in April 2020, Schall published an editorial in the Boston Globe advocating for the regulation of delivery app charges.
It is clear that advocacy and public policy remain an important part of Schall’s identity, despite having worked in the private sector and the restaurant business for 25 years.
Schall predicts that El Jefe’s will generate $ 25 million in revenue in 2022, its biggest year yet. It will open its seventh and eighth sites next year on the campuses of Boston University and the University of Pittsburgh. On the Northeastern campus, El Jefe’s has developed a loyal following.
“Everyone on campus knows El Jefe’s,” said Michael Hutchinson, a freshman in the Explore program. “Especially on weekends at night, the place is packed.
The resounding success of El Jefe’s confirms Schall’s belief in the concept and his daring venture into the restaurant industry 25 years ago. “It works,” he said with a smile. “We know the concept works. ”
As Schall reaches the twilight of his career, he doesn’t know how far he wants to go with El Jefe. His son Justin Schall is responsible for overseeing the company’s marketing operations, and he will likely delegate more work as he approaches retirement age. But after a career in screenwriting and the constant desire to create something new, Schall views El Jefe with a sense of purpose.
“A lot of people are profiting from El Jefe’s success,” Schall said. “And it’s really great to see it all at the end.”