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The burrito king

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

In his mid-20s, Boloco founder and CEO John Pepper ate hundreds of burritos crafted in San Francisco’s Mission District, whose taquerías had become known for piling rice, meat and side dishes into large flour tortillas.

“I realized that I could spend my whole life doing something like this,” Pepper said. He pointed to his heart and then added, “It starts here. Not a lot of businesses make it for a long period of time without passion, and I was passionate about food and burritos.”

Pepper addressed more than 200 students who packed 150 Dodge Hall on Tuesday evening for a lecture sponsored by the Northeastern University Entrepreneurs Club.

The burrito king said he opened the first Boloco restaurant in Boston in 1997. Over the next 15 years, he expanded his business into nearly two-dozen locations throughout New England.

Pepper places a premium on both customer and employee satisfaction. “We want to make customers happy at all costs,” he said. “If we blow it, we do everything we can to make it up to you.”

Both the Boloco iPhone application and in-restaurant kiosks were designed with one goal in mind: “We want to get customers food faster,” said Pepper, who admits to eating more than a dozen burritos per week.

At the end of his lecture, Pepper gave honest advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, whom he encouraged to take chances. “You have to see less risk than everybody else,” he explained. “Be careful about stepping away from a good idea even if someone had already done it.”

Prior to Pepper’s lecture, students networked with each other while eating burritos and listening to salsa music. Many students broke the ice by asking their peers whom they would love to have lunch with.

Sophomore Cory Bolotsky, director of the Husky Start-Up Challenge — an Entrepreneurs Club program that helps students turn their businesses into viable ventures — explained the rationale behind the pre-lecture festivities. As he put it, “We want to empower students and help them build meaningful relationships with their peers who could be potential business partners.”

From time to time, he would jump onto a chair to make a playful proclamation. In his booming voice, he implored, “Talk to people who you don’t know. If I see you sitting with someone who you came in with, I will publicly embarrass you.”