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A New Twist

Wraps: an Ancient Food Concept Dressed for the '90s

May 15, 1997|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Savvy restaurant operators know that when it comes to food trends, there's rarely anything new under the sun.

That's definitely the case with wraps, the trendy, burrito-like fare now popping up on restaurant menus around the country.

Many diners may be seeing the sandwich-like wraps for the first time. But flat-bread items--stuffed with everything from vegetables and pork to chicken and cheese--date to the earliest of times.

"The Incas, Mayans and Egyptians had them," said Ricardo Bovero, a 25-year industry veteran who recently opened Bam Wraps, an Irvine restaurant that features wrapped entrees. "If [a civilization] knew about flour and had mastered fire, they were making breads and wrapping up whatever food they had at hand."

The burrito-like entrees are being rediscovered by profit-hungry restaurants ranging from Long John Silver to KFC, as well as slightly higher-priced eateries such as Bam Wraps near UC Irvine.

Taco Bell recently added a higher-priced line of Border Wraps to help boost flagging sales and profits. KFC is betting that Chicken Twisters--freshly cooked chicken wrapped in a pita-like pocket--will bolster lunchtime traffic when they're rolled out nationwide this summer. And the San Francisco-based Chevy's restaurant chain views wraps as the foundation for a new chain of eateries called Wrapworks.

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Wraps are sandwich-like entrees that look like an oddly folded burrito or a pita pocket. They're relatively simple fare. The outer "skin" is made of flour--either a tortilla, a baked flat bread or a pita bread pocket--and the inside is stuffed with whatever is on hand.

"There are no rules when it comes to what you put in a wrap," Bovero said. "The concept lends itself to Thai food, an Indian dish, Italian, whatever. Our menu is a mix of what we think will taste good."

Chefs say that wraps, like pizza and Chinese food, travel well--a welcome attribute at a time when consumers often eat on the run.

"They're portable. You can eat them while at your desk or in the car," said Brea-based restaurant industry consultant Robert Sandelman. "Some of them aren't heated. Others are. But even if they cool off, they're not going to lose their appeal--like cold French fries."

Restaurateurs also say that consumers are being drawn to wraps because they're looking for something new in a culinary world dominated by burgers, pizza and Mexican-style fast food.

The menu at Bam Wraps, which ranges from seared chicken to grilled lamb, shows how diverse wraps can be. Bam Wraps will augment its basic wraps with everything from avocado to shiitake mushrooms.

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Even the "wrappers" are tailored to meet individual tastes: Bakers are producing wrappers with spinach, chili and tomato flavors. They're also reaching into history to use ancient bread types like pita pockets and falafel--in essence, flat breads that serve as edible containers for whatever food is at hand.

Consumers are drawn by the taste, texture and convenience associated with food that comes wrapped in a flat bread or pita pocket. But restaurateurs, food-service suppliers and retail developers are betting that wraps can add to their bottom line.

Several restaurant companies maintain that wraps will join burritos, gyros and other foods that have moved beyond ethnic restaurants.

Great Wraps, an Atlanta-based restaurant operator, has opened 50 units that sell pita-wrapped sandwiches. The chain started as a gyro restaurant but expanded into the wider world of wraps during the 1980s.

World Wrapps, a San Francisco-based chain that was among the first West Coast operators to offer a wrap-based menu, now has seven restaurants in the Bay Area and four in Seattle. The privately held company will open its first Southern California restaurants--including locations on Melrose Avenue in L.A. and in North Hollywood and Beverly Hills--this summer.

Bam Wraps also plans to expand.

"We have the financial backing to expand to 10 restaurants," said restaurant co-founder Jeffrey Solenberger. "We think we've got a concept that developers are going to be interested in, particularly at retail centers."

Chevy's, the Mexican-style restaurant operator that's being spun off by Taco Bell, also is planting the seeds for a chain of wrap restaurants.

Chevy's has opened two Wrapworks restaurants in the Bay Area and three more in Washington, D.C. "We're heading toward a dozen or so locations by midyear," said Leslie Liberatori, spokeswoman for Chevy's Wrapworks division.

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Some restaurant chains--as well as a growing number of independents--believe wraps can broaden a menu's appeal for new customers.

KFC, for example, has been test-marketing Chicken Twisters in Los Angeles restaurants for several months. The wraps, which look like a pita pocket, are stuffed with chicken, vegetables, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, bacon and a ranch-style dressing.

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