SALT LAKE CITY — Necessity being the mother of invention, when J.P. Francia was broke and needed to figure out how to pay the dang mortgage, he turned to something that had bailed him out before.
The first time was when he was growing up in San Diego. Both of his parents worked, making him a latchkey kid who often had to fare for himself when it came to dinner.
"The tortilla was the ubiquitous thing. Everything went into the tortilla in San Diego," J.P. recalls with obvious fondness. "I made food for myself and lots of neighborhood kids all the time. We made bologna and velveeta cheese quesadillas, and pb&j quesadillas and everything else that was in the fridge."
Now fast forward three-plus decades when he was living in southern Idaho and his career stalled as a TV producer on account of the Great Recession of 2008.
The television series J.P. had poured his heart and soul, and life savings, into — an animated kids' show called "Andy's Airplanes" — came up high on critical acclaim and a couple million short on funding.
By 2011 he was back to square one with a family to feed and a house payment and no income.
A cousin who was working in the oil fields had a suggestion.
"Hey, J.P.," he said, "If you've got nothing else going on, you make great food. Why don't you get a taco truck and feed oil workers in North Dakota. We're all eating out of gas stations and there's like 50,000 of us."
So J.P. bought a 36-foot trailer, turned it into a food truck, and headed for North Dakota.
He called his new business Sweeto Burrito. "Comfort food shoved in a burrito," is how he described the menu. "It's not really Mexican food, it's more just yummy stuff."
The oil workers ate it up. So did motorcycle riders when J.P. took his food truck three hours south to Sturgis, South Dakota, for the massive motorcycle rally held there every summer.
He figured he might be onto something when, after the three-week rally was over, the Sturgis people rated him the top food vendor for the year and the Travel Channel featured him on TV.
Even more flattering — in a strange sort of way — was the feedback from more than one motorcycle gang. They told him he'd better be back the next year or they'd come looking for him.
He absolutely knew he was onto something when that fall he set up his food truck on a gas station corner in downtown Idaho Falls, across the street from a Wendy’s and a Costa Vida, just down the block from a Chick-fil-A and four blocks from a Cafe Rio. And people still kept lining up for his food. In the winter.
"Ladies in Escalades, grandmas and grandpas, business guys, kids from the high school, everybody showed up, and kept showing up," says J.P. "That's when we knew we had something bigger than hungry dude and motorcycle food."
A brand was born.
In the six years since, J.P. has been a busy man. Adopting a lucha libre ("free fighting") theme, as in the movie "Nacho Libre," and the slogan, "No limit to what's in it," he's opened seven Sweeto Burritos in Utah and 10 more in surrounding states. The first brick-and-mortar store was in Orem, just down the road from BYU, his alma mater.5 comments on this story
He has plans for more. He recently hired a CEO, a director of corporate operations and other seasoned veterans of the food trade, and moved Sweeto's headquarters out of his house and into an office suite in Midvale.
That leaves J.P. with more time to do what he does best: create new burritos.
At the moment he's working on a concoction with a Dia de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead") theme — "like in the movie 'Coco.'"
"The idea is to keep finding things that are yummy and shove them in a tortilla," he says. "That's how we started. That's what we do."