Mexican grill bringing California-style flavor to Columbus

Willy’s Mexicana Grill’s Fresh-Mex menu includes freshly prepared tacos. --
Willy’s Mexicana Grill’s Fresh-Mex menu includes freshly prepared tacos. -- Image from Willy’s Mexicana Facebook page

A Mexican grill that serves up California-style burritos — having opened in the Buckhead area of Atlanta two decades ago — looks to open in Columbus within three weeks.

Atlanta-based Willy’s Mexicana Grill will be cooking up its “Fresh-Mex” flavor of burritos, bowls, nachos, tacos, salads and quesadillas at Columbus Park Crossing, 5279 Whittlesey Blvd., on the city’s north side.

The company plans to have its 30th location open by Oct. 17, said Diana Holley, Willy’s vice president of marketing. A Columbus building permit shows $300,000 is being spent on the build-out of the space, which is part of a small strip center being constructed and leased by Adams Brokerage Co. of Columbus.

Founded in 1995 by Willy Bitter, who oversees the company today, Willy’s Mexicana Grill has grown to 29 locations. All but one, an Athens, Ga., eatery, are spread out across the Atlanta metro area. The chain also offers catering service.

“We choose to prepare our food the way I would do it in my own home,” Bitter says of the “food philosophy” that has guided his restaurant company through the years. His research included time spent eating in Colorado and in the San Francisco Mission District.

“We get in fresh meats and trim and marinate them in house,” he says. “We shred our own cheese to ensure moistness and flavor. We use fresh produce and chop it up ourselves. We use blind taste tests to ensure we get the best tasting products from our suppliers. You would be amazed at how different chipotle peppers can taste from different suppliers.

“We look at taste first, then we look at the cost. We make things twice a day such as guacamole and tomatillo sauce not because we need to, but because they taste so much better. It’s that extra freshness that really counts. We could use bottled minced garlic in our recipes, but we use whole peeled garlic cloves flash fried to bring out a roasted mellow flavor. There is no comparison between the two.”

The average check for a Willy’s Mexicana Grill customer is $8 to $10, including beverage, the company said. Typical hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day.

Willy’s Mexicana Grill joins several other retailers and eateries along a stretch of Whittlesey Boulevard being developed into strip centers by Adams Brokerage. The adjacent food locations include Zoe’s Kitchen, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Panda Express, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Wasabi Sushi and Bar. A Longhorn Steakhouse and TGI Friday’s also are next to the small centers.

Willy’s will be in a building also occupied by Eyemart Express, which opened Aug. 1, with a third space still available, said Wes Lewis, senior vice president, broker and development director for Adams Brokerage.

“We’re in discussions with a couple of different groups to take the middle space, and feel confident we’ll be able to get that leased,” he said.

Lewis said there are about two acres of land left to development on land adjacent to the Willy’s/Eyemart building.

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