A talk with Scott Anderson
By Scott Douglas
Scott Anderson owns Herb’s Gully, a burrito shop on Oak Street in Portland.
The Bollard: The Herb’s Gully creation myth is that you hiked the Appalachian Trail, and during that time or after doing that you decided…
Anderson: Where I landed after the Appalachian Trail, I came home to South Portland for a couple weeks, and then I had friends who offered me a stay in North Conway, New Hampshire, which is pretty close to the Appalachian Trail. That’s where I was feeling the most love at that point.
I went up to North Conway, I waited tables for about a year, applied for credit cards and created Herb’s Gully after that. Herb’s Gully actually started in North Conway, in 2000, and then I moved it here in 2003.
What is the significance of the name?
Where I was in North Conway, I was in a courtyard. The people that were there were the Courtyard Cafe, and I didn’t want to call my place ‘Courtyard,’ but I sat off the main drag, so I called it my gully. Along the Appalachian Trail they have different spots — gaps, gullies, notches – but I didn’t want to call it a ‘gap’ or ‘notch.’
When I moved to Portland, I’m wedged between Free and Congress, so it still seems like I’m in a gully.
What about the Herb part?
Herb was a gentleman in his 80s who hiked Mount Washington every day. The big thing up in North Conway is that everyone named their restaurant after their family members or themselves, and this gentleman was a legend in North Conway, so I decided to name it after him.
Why burritos instead of pizza or tuna subs or whatever?
I went to the bars up there and figured out what people were looking for. And on the Appalachian Trail I made quesadillas and burritos constantly. Tortillas, instead of bread, are easy to carry and last the longest.
Once you decided that was what you were going to do, what was the learning process?
I’ve never owned anything in my life besides this. I feel like I have a pretty creative outlook on life.
In North Conway, my shop used to be an ice cream shop for like 30 years. When I went to the gentleman who owned the building, he said, ‘As long as you keep the ice cream, fine,’ so I kept 30 flavors of ice cream along with the burritos and fresh smoothies. I had an ice cream window, a courtyard, live music three days a week.
But then my lease ran out. The gentleman sold the building to a real estate mogul in town, and he came along and tripled the rent. I went from $650 a month in the off-season and $1,200 a month in-season to $2,250 year-round. That’s when I chose to move to Portland. I saw potential in this building, with the Maine College of Art just around the corner, right in downtown.
Was there a learning curve in terms of making the food?
In North Conway, I just started creating. My girlfriend then – now my wife – we just sat around and ate burritos for a month trying different ideas and recipes and salsas. We tried to create burritos that we liked that were not your typical burrito, with refried beans and lard, but on the healthier, organic side. I seemed to luck out and get it right from the start.
Because we’re so small, we prep [ingredients] daily. On a good day, we might cycle through twice or three times.
What is a good day? Like on a Friday?
On First Fridays, in the summertime, maybe 150 burritos, 30 smoothies.
This has been a pretty rough winter. It used to be housing here [above the shop], but now it’s dorms, and the dorms, the students are gone for a month and a half. We were down to 30 burritos a day earlier this winter. But on average during the wintertime, maybe 40 burritos at lunch and 30 at dinnertime.
What’s your normal schedule like?
Because I have a newborn baby, my schedule depends partly on when my wife works. She works night shift as a nurse. I get home, take the baby, she goes to work, so that we don’t have to go to day care. So it’s a lot of shuffling around.
In a normal week, how much of your time is spent on administrative stuff versus preparing food?
I do everything administrative. I have one other full-time person who, with me, does the prep. Administrative work is maybe 10 hours a week. For the most part, you’re here, cooking something, cleaning. It’s definitely a full-time job, nonstop. Because it’s such a small business, I don’t have a lot of employees, and I do get stuck doing almost all of it.
When you were creating the menu, what did you base it on?
Just life experiences, I think. Trying to find a niche or a market. I was in the mountains, and I had literally just gotten off the Appalachian Trail, and that was so fresh in my mind. That summer that I was waiting tables, I still hiked like 90 days that year, so that was all very present to me.
There’s a part of the Appalachian Trail down south, 20-plus miles, that was blazed by a Native American woman who succumbed to the weather. So they have a plaque on the Appalachian Trail for this section, called the Chunky Gal Trail. So I named our roasted-vegetable burrito the Chunky Gal.
People who would know what the Chunky Gal means would be through hikers, which is another of my burritos, the Thru Hiker. So I created burritos and my wife and I would throw around names for them.
How many burritos do you eat a week?
One a shift, so about one a day.
Do you ever get sick of them?
Nope. The burritos here are pretty good, you know? I rotate through the menu.
Here’s something I can’t figure out: At home, I can make a restaurant-quality risotto. But when I make burritos, they’re not nearly as good as they are at a good burrito place. It seems weird that I can match this $18 entree at home, but I can’t duplicate a $5 burrito.
I tell you, in six years of doing it, first in North Conway and now in Portland, it’s very hard to find someone who can roll a burrito. Even some of the people who work here, I sometimes have to remind them about the process of rolling a burrito. There’s also the layering process, how you mix the ingredients. But really, it’s all in the roll—how you roll it, how you wrap it.