The Craft of Birria

Birria Boys—built around delicious birria—is a hit in Elk Grove, California.

The Craft of Birria

October 2023   minute read

By: Al Hebert

Chris Cornelis has a passion for food—good food. “When I was younger, I worked in the food industry, and it wasn’t paying enough. I worked at ritzy restaurants. I lost hope, gave up, and left the business. But it is my passion,” he said.

Oftentimes people who cut their teeth in the food industry and step away will find their way back. Cornelis felt that pull to return to the kitchen, and when he did he tried something different.

“I started a food truck with my brother. It got popular fast! We had long lines, and when I say long, it stretched for a block,” he said. “We’d sell out in two hours and people would get upset. I couldn’t keep up with the demand. We knew we needed a brick-and-mortar location. Even now, we have long lines and run out of food.”

Unlike south Louisiana or Texas, gas station food is not that common in northern California. Cornelis, however, saw the potential at a local Shell station.

Inside the store, there was a kitchen space and window for a QSR sandwich shop that failed. The space sat empty for 15 years. “They were using it for storage. I talked to the owner about taking over the space, and he was all for it. We came in and started operating Birria Boys in July of 2022. We brought life to it,” said Cornelis.

Birria Boys sells the food and the c-store sells the drinks. It’s a good partnership that’s bringing a lot of foot traffic inside the store.

20 Spices, 9 Hours

What makes Birria Boys so popular? First, it’s the birria. Cornelis explained, “Birria is beef short rib seasoned with 20 spices. We cook it for nine hours and it takes about an hour and a half of prep prior to cooking. By the time it’s done, there’s no bone or cartilage and it’s shredded on a taco. We have 100% success rate on no bone and no cartilage. That’s how tedious the process is and how we pay attention to detail,” he said, adding, “It’s a craft, and at the end of the day, the craft needs to be performed well. It really is our signature food.”

The queso tacos are the most popular menu item. “This is a corn tortilla, fried to a crisp, then we add Monterey cheese and your choice of meat, but I recommend the birria.”

On Tuesdays, Cornelis runs a special that capitalizes on the tacos. “You buy three tacos and you get a free taco. Sometimes the line goes out the door,” he explained, adding, “I have a good team. We’re efficient but it’s still a lot—sometimes it’s too much just for the size of the facility and the people. Customers come in masses.”

From Grilled Cheese to Chipotle Tartar

To compete in the food business, you have to think outside the box—and garlic bread grilled cheese is definitely not inside the box. “Who doesn’t like garlic bread? … I’ve been doing this since the food truck, almost three years,” said Cornelis.

Cornelis points out something that sets him apart from bigger chains: “Everything we serve is organic and local. I have a surf and turf. It’s seared steak with shrimp and chipotle tartar sauce. I peel the shrimp each morning so it’s fresh.”

His enthusiasm for cooking is boundless and palpable. “Everything sells ridiculously. We have people who drive really far to eat at our gas station. Some people drive three hours from Fresno.”

Social media plays a part in the success. “Our social media is busy and popular. For me, it was connecting us with different forms of people’s interests. When I had the food truck, we connected with the car community. We provided food for a racetrack. You’d have thousands of people eating our food. A lot of car people enjoyed our food,” he explained.

You Had Us at Tacos

During his West Coast road trip in June, NACS Chairman Don Rhoads and the NACS team stopped by to visit Chris Cornelis and his team at Birria Boys—and of course eat the food. “Easily the best tacos we had in California, and in California there are a ton of places to eat excellent tacos,” said Chrissy Blasinsky, NACS digital and content strategist.

“Our Instagram is very popular. It kind of manages itself. My brother and I take the photos. Everything we do is in the middle of a rush and on the spot so there’s no planning. We post a video once a week to let them know we’re here to make great food for them.”

Catering also offers a great revenue stream for people in the food business—and even better when it rolls up to the venue. “We still have the food truck, and we use it mainly for catering events. We do a lot of catering. It’s not the backbone of the business but we do really large orders. We’ve done 300 tacos in the middle of a rush,” he said.

Cornelis feels strongly about giving back to the people who have helped him become a success. “A big thing for us is community service. Our first year in the food truck, I teamed up with my friend who had a car shop. We collected toys for Christmas and got about 1,000 toys. This year at the store we teamed up with our local fire department and helped raise money for the local burn unit. People come from all over the country to go to the burn unit at Shriner’s Hospital. I don’t take it off taxes; I just do it to help people.”

From a food truck to a gas station, Cornelis creates food destinations. So what’s next?

“You never know what I’m going to do next. My mind is always running. I’m spontaneous. Our goal is to open a couple more restaurants and to be a national chain,” he said.

Keep watching.

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The birria crunch wrap is one of the signature items at Birria Boys.

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Birria Boys is located inside this Shell station.

Al Hebert

Al Hebert

Al Hebert is the Gas Station Gourmet, showcasing America’s hidden culinary treasures. Find him at

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