Here’s a fun game to test the limits of your memory: When was the last time you ate a wrap? The odds are good that you were on a plane, or at a catered work event, or stranded at a highway fast-food chain trying to make a Healthy Choice. The wrap likely featured sweating deli meat and cheese, or grilled chicken and limp lettuce, or squishy roasted vegetables. The tortilla was probably soggy.
To understand how we got here—the land of underwhelming but omnipresent wraps—it would be nice to start at the beginning, to roll back the tape to the very first wrap. But there are many claimants to the ur-wrap. Does the genesis lie, as the New York Times once asserted, with World Wrapps, a spot founded in San Francisco in 1994 out of “four supereducated pals” ideating around “their love of burritos”? Nope. A full five years earlier, the Los Angeles Times wrote up West Hollywood’s I Love Juicy for their Juicy Wrap, “a whole-wheat lavash (tortilla-type) sandwich filled with organic sprouts, humous (sesame seed sauce), tabouli (parsley salad) and cucumbers.” Even that was old news to Bobby Valentine, one-time manager of the Boston Red Sox, who says he started making club sandwiches with tortillas as far back as 1980.
In any assessment of wraps’ beginnings, you’ll find the antediluvians hollering, “People have been wrapping foods in other foods for thousands of years!” Which, sure. But we’re not talking about those other foods—a burrito, say, or a lettuce wrap, which despite the similarity of its name has little to do with the tortilla-swaddled sandwich cousin that took the world by storm circa 1996. There was definitely a time before wraps. Consider the 1990 cookbook The Well-Filled Tortilla Cookbook (really), which has a few offbeat filling ideas like “Carne Asada Genghis Khan,” but never refers to the end products as wraps.
All things considered, we can comfortably say that wraps as a food craze originated in California in the early nineties. The concept was simple: ingredients in a tortilla that hadn’t been put in a tortilla before. Early versions were heavy on (non-Mexican) international flavors: teriyaki chicken, curried vegetables, paella, and “humous” were stuffed inside sundried-tomato tortillas up and down the West Coast. Globalization! Healthy lifestyles! The money poured in.
“We were doing like, forty-five thousand dollars a week out of a six-hundred-square-foot location,” says Matthew Blair, the president and co-founder of World Wrapps. “No one had ever seen a number like that for revenue per square foot before. We had to close [some days] because we ran out of food.”
By 1996, the craze had headed east, with wraps-only establishments popping up from Boston to Miami. Food historians like Andrew Smith talk about wraps like they were the Beatles: “It was just everywhere—it was a matter of days from the first time I saw it until everyone was eating it.” Sandwiches could finally be taken down a peg. From a 1996 Miami Herald article: “You get more taste when compared to a thin filling between two thick layers of bland bread in the traditional sandwich… You don’t need all that mayonnaise or sandwich spread needed to moisten the dry bread in a sandwich.”
But the trend’s popularity was also its undoing. “That’s a Wrap: A Fad’s Fade-Out,” the New York Times declared just two years later, in 1998, attributing the closing of wrap shops to overexposure and competition from chains. “The mainstream’s acceptance raised the wrap’s profile but also diluted its coolness, which for many wrap entrepreneurs was disastrous.”
Fast food wraps had fundamentally changed the formula. Where spinach tortillas once overflowed with fresh salmon and sprouts, wraps from Wendy’s contained nothing but grilled chicken, lettuce, cheddar cheese, and honey mustard sauce. Wraps didn’t disappear—they just got boring. But this primed them for further success in the low-carb mania of the early 2000s, when a basic bread-free option seemed like a virtuous meal. (Even though, ahem, a flour tortilla is calorically equivalent to a hamburger bun or two pieces of bread.) When McDonald’s introduced their snack wrap in 2006, using ingredients that stores already had on hand, sales were 30 percent higher than expected because so many people ordered it as a light lunch.
Commercial menu planners cozied up to wraps for all these reasons—their preparation is simple, they seem healthy, and you can fill them with stuff that’s not too exotic for the average eater. By the mid-2000s, as Blair put it, “on every single airline you could get the ham and cheese wrap.” Dr. Willa Zhen, a food anthropologist and professor at the Culinary Institute of America, also notes that wraps’ portability made them ideal for catered settings: “Your hands stay relatively clean,” she observed, “which is good for handshaking and networking at a conference.”
Amanda Topper, associate director of food service research at Mintel, compared the trajectory of wraps to other niche-to-mainstream hits like kale, quinoa, turkey burgers, and avocado toast. Like many trendy foods, they are easy to make, but wraps are especially easy to make badly. Under-sauced, under-seasoned ingredients have nowhere to hide when they’re tucked in a gummy plain tortilla. Even in the doomsday Times article in 1998, experts had identified that when it comes to wraps, what’s inside really matters: “‘Consumers care more about what is in the wrap than the wrap themselves,’ said John McMillen, a food analyst at Prudential Securities. ‘And maybe some of those stores didn’t cut it in the middle.’”
But haters, take note: according to market research firm Mintel’s data, menu mentions of wraps grew 85 percent from 2004 to 2016.
In the last year alone, menu mentions of wraps grew 22 percent. Check out the in-flight menus the next time you’re on a plane: everyone still offers a wrap. And the OGs at World Wrapps are still holding out hope that the wrap can shake off the cold conference-food reputation: after contracting from twenty-six stores to four, they are attempting a comeback with more up-to-date versions with new flavors, like bulgogi rolled in a sheet of nori.
A wrap resurgence could be upon us yet.