Emily Teel, sophomore art major from Abilene, sees her friends every time she’s at work.
Teel works at Sharky’s Burrito Co., the popular build-your-own-burrito restaurant located near the Abilene Christian University campus. One of the few burrito places in Abilene, it is frequented by many students from ACU and Hardin-Simmons University, as well as Abilene residents.
Teel began working at Sharky’s more than a year and a half ago, the summer after she graduated from Abilene High School. But she didn’t even like the restaurant’s over-stuffed burritos.
“I didn’t think it was that awesome,” she said.
She tried the food again after a month or two of working in the space filled with the mixing smells of chicken, steak, spicy ranch, queso and seasoned tortilla chips. It started to grow on her.
“I eat it three times a week now,” she said. “It’s probably not the best, calorie-wise, but it is the best quality.”
Teel, like many other customers from ACU and HSU, usually chooses the kids’ burrito, a generously sized tortilla filled to capacity with meat, cheese and veggies. The “big” and “bigger” burritos, the most popular main menu items, are only a bit bigger.
“But I have to get the salads now because they’re a little better for me,” Teel said.
Randall Young, owner of the local Sharky’s restaurant, said the restaurant sees about 80 percent regular customers. Some of the Sharky’s original menu items bring the regulars back again and again to the restaurant located in the corner of the United Supermarkets store on N. Judge Ely Boulevard.
“We hear good feedback about our customer service, but that comes second after our chips and spicy ranch,” Young said. “The spicy ranch is good on everything. Some people don’t think they’ll like it, but when they taste it they say, ‘Oh gosh, this is good.'”
However, even though Young said he enjoys the freshly made spicy ranch, it isn’t his favorite Sharky’s sauce.
“I like the habanero sauce the best,” he said. “More people would like it if they tried it.”
Abilene is home to only a few burrito restaurants; of these, Sharky’s is closest in comparison to Blue Taco’s two local locations. Some students from out of town miss two popular burrito chains, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Freebirds World Burrito.
“I like Sharky’s, but I think Chipotle is better,” said Jonathan Martin, junior biology pre-med major from San Antonio. “My brother used to work there and I went there all the time.”
But the disagreement continues around campus and the community.
“I hate Chipotle,” Teel said. “Basically, Sharky’s is my favorite.”
Sharky’s, named after the head cook of the Amarillo restaurant, usually employs ACU students.
“There are three ACU students working here now, and we’ve had up to six at a time,” Young said. “I like having them work here.”
Now Teel’s older sister Megan, senior art education major from Abilene, also works at Sharky’s.
Young said he usually also has a few HSU students working in the restaurant each semester, but rarely students from McMurry University because it is on the other side of town.
“We’re so tied to ACU and HSU because we’re located so close to them,” Young said. “We try to sponsor and donate to different organizations involved with the schools, like with ACU Game Day and advertising with the Optimist. We try to do a lot of different things, but we can’t do them all.”
The Sharky’s location in Abilene opened in April 2006, after the company branched out from its original location in Amarillo. Business partners Young and Brent Epps both co-ran each one until about 2008, Young thinks, when they mutually agreed to split up; Epps staying in Amarillo, and Young focusing solely on Abilene.
Young said the new location, and its proximity to college campuses, has been good for business. Students make up about 60-65 percent of Sharky’s customers.
“I love being in this location,” he said. “It’s a good place for students to come and eat off campus.”
But this sort of popularity among a constantly changing student population makes for a volatile rotation in the burrito place’s customer base.
“Students leave after graduation,” Young said. “This rotation happens every year, and then we have to work to gain back new freshmen. It’s an ongoing deal trying to regain customers. A lot of restaurants don’t have that problem.”
Homecoming and Sing Song weekends create an even greater traffic jam in the restaurant space.
Even though the students dominate the customer base during the school year, the community traffic picks up during the summer to keep the total burrito sales near the same rate as when school is in.
“The locals know there are less students here during the summer so they come in more,” he said.
But some students stay in Abilene even during the summer and take advantage of the shorter lines, surprising some workers like Emily Teel.
“I see some people I know in line and had no idea they were in town, and wouldn’t have known if I didn’t work there,” Teel said.