Bubbakoo’s Burritos is in growth mode, a year after opening its first franchised unit.
The Point Pleasant, N.J.-based fast-casual chain has more than doubled in size since 2014, to 16 units, five of which are franchised. Another two franchised locations are slated to open in the next six weeks.
The Jersey Shore chain specializes in what co-founder Paul Altero calls American Mexican food – essentially American food in the shape of tacos, burritos and quesadillas.
With 12 different proteins, including crispy Buffalo chicken, hibachi steak and shrimp, Sriracha shredded pork, General Tso’s chicken, and Southern-style barbecue chicken and pork, Bubbakoo’s offers customers creative flavors in familiar forms.
Or mostly familiar forms: One specialty is the Chiwawa, panko-crusted, fried rice balls smothered in a choice of toppings.
“People love it,” Altero said.
Bubbakoo’s also offers sides such as jalapeño poppers, Southwest egg rolls, chips, salsa, queso, guacamole, curly fries and nachos, as well as desserts including batter-fried Oreo cookies and “love chips,” which are tortilla chips dusted in powdered sugar and drizzled with caramel or raspberry syrup.
Entrées range from $8.35 to $10.95. Kids’ meals are priced at $3.50, and students can order meals that include chips and a drink for $6.
Altero and business partner Bill Hart, both Johnny Rockets operations veterans, opened the first Bubbakoo’s in March 2008, in a 1,200-square-foot space in Point Pleasant, N.J., that shared a dining room with a Jersey Mike’s restaurant.
They soon found that community involvement would be the key to their success.
“Probably three or four months in, sales were slowly picking up,” Hart said. “Then we held our first church fundraiser on a Sunday and sales skyrocketed. We broke our $2,000-a-day mark, and then the whole next weekend was $2,000 a day.”
The original location now grosses $1.3 million a year, the partners said, while average unit volumes at most other locations have risen to around $850,000, from $725,000 in 2015.
“And that’s in B and C locations in central Jersey,” Altero said.
As Bubbakoo’s moves to more prime locations farther north, near New York City, restaurants could see regular volumes above $1 million.
All of the company-owned locations and two of the franchised units were converted from other restaurants that failed, dramatically lowering build-out costs from as little as $100,000 to $250,000.
Customer service is also a focus.
“We’re really big on trying to hire great personalities,” Altero said. “One of the biggest components of our concept that people really seem to be excited about is the fact that our people talk to you. Not just, ‘What can I get you?’ but, ‘How’s your day?’ ‘Where are you coming from?’ ‘I haven’t seen you in two weeks.’”
That’s part of the training program, Hart said, and has always been an important part of Bubbakoo’s identity.
The chain has evolved over the years. It began with a kitschy, tiki feel, and has moved toward “more of an organic, Jersey Shore-feel burrito bar,” Altero said.
Video screens show scenes of surfers and extreme sports, and pictures of winners of Bubbakoo’s “El Hefe” challenge — eat two Chiwawas surrounded by chips in less than an hour — hang on the walls.
But community involvement has remained a focus. With 11 company-owned restaurants, Hart said the chain holds around four fundraisers a week, in which sports teams or other local groups eat at the restaurant, and 20 percent of sales goes back to that group.
In addition to supporting local causes, fundraisers bring in new customers and reinforce loyalty among existing ones, he said.
Turnover is also low, around 50 percent for hourly employees, Altero said.
“Eighty percent of our focus as owners and franchisors is on people,” he said, which includes strong training in customer service and weekly management meetings to discuss developing employees.
This summer, Bubbakoo’s reinforced its identity as a Jersey Shore favorite by opening a location in The Stone Pony, a legendary music venue in Asbury Park credited with launching the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi.
“They called us at the beginning of the summer, and we just made it there in time for July 4th,” Hart said. “They just used to have hamburgers and hot dogs out of a hole in the wall by the back bar inside. They called us and said, ‘Our cook didn’t show up and we’re over it. Would you guys have an interest in bringing a Bubbakoo’s inside?’ We didn’t even know there was a kitchen there.”
The Stone Pony unit has fewer proteins than a regular Bubbakoo’s, but with added bar snacks such as mozzarella sticks and macaroni-and-cheese bites. The location is only open during shows.
“We have a captive audience of 5,000 people. It’s great,” Hart said.
It’s also great for exposure.
“The amount of people that talk to us on a weekly basis about The Stone Pony is incredible,” Altero said.
Now that Bubbakoo’s is more established, Altero said the chain is looking at more prime real estate and franchisees who share their values.
“We want people that are excited about getting out into the community and being a part of the community and giving back,” Altero said. “Ideally, we always want to grow faster, but we also believe that slow and steady wins the race. We want to make sure it’s done right.”
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
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