Peter Mazza ’01 and Than Merrill ’01 always thought that New Haven needed some tasty, affordable and healthy Mexican fast food.

Back when the two were juniors, they would sit around and talk about it all the time. Merrill, a California native, was used to seeing Mexican fast food all over the place, but New Haven did not have a single shop. So, conversation after conversation, the same question kept coming back: why not just open one up?

It turns out that, a little more than three years later, they finally will.

Around early January 2003, Yalies will at long last have the opportunity to grab some quick and cheap burritos, tacos, enchiladas and quesadillas at the brand new MexiCali Grille at 320 Elm St.

MexiCali Grille will allow students to fully customize their selections. Patrons will start out with an empty tortilla and have the ability to choose all the toppings — from the type of salsa to the type of bean — that they want in their burrito, all for under $5.

“The concept? Sometimes people describe it as a Mexican Subway,” Mazza said.

But getting from concept to final product has taken a lot of time, determination and luck, the two say.

Only a year ago, with the two graduating — Merrill going off to be a defensive back for the Chicago Bears and Mazza, a former captain of Yale’s gridiron squad, going to work on Capitol Hill — it did not seem likely that the two would ever reunite and turn their idea into a reality.

Then personal reasons brought Mazza, a native of nearby Cheshire, back to New Haven, where he began to work for Yale’s admissions office. That was precisely when Merrill sent him an e-mail about the idea. At that point, everything started to come together.

“Than knew I was back and he sent me an e-mail saying, ‘I still have this idea. See what you can do to investigate this,'” Mazza said.

So Mazza told a friend of his at the admissions office, who, luckily enough for him, was living with Andrea Pizziconi ’01, a development associate for University Properties. Next thing he knew he was introduced to her, and he had the opportunity to pitch his concept.

“At that point, I was really thrilled that she sat down with me, because who was I? I was just some kid off the street with a crazy idea,” Mazza said.

“Pete was a Yale grad who wanted to do a burrito place, and we have a lot of starry-eyed grads who want to do burrito places,” Pizziconi said. “I told Pete that, ‘I got to tell you that there are other people that we are looking at with more experience, but you know if you find a local restaurateur perhaps we can talk.'”

But that did not deter Mazza. He needed to find a local restaurateur, so find a local restaurateur he did.

Back in high school, Mazza had worked in the dish room at Aunt Chilada’s, a Mexican restaurant in Hamden, where he had gotten to know owner Charles Hague. He decided to drop by Hague’s office to see if he could get some help.

“I went back to his restaurant just on a whim,” said Mazza. “I gave him the idea. Initially, he was just going to offer me some friendly advice.” But as the two discussed, Hague became more interested in getting involved.

Soon, Hague — who has managed more than half a dozen restaurants — became a partner in the venture.

With Hague providing Mazza and Merrill with the experience they needed, Mazza pitched the idea once more to Pizziconi, and she became hooked.

With the confidence that their idea would work, they later signed the lease with Pizziconi and now are eagerly awaiting the opening in January.