It’s a restaurant where everyone is greeted with a friendly “hello” when they walk through the door. A place where the food is fresh, the staff is familiar and you keep coming back again and again – in other words, the simple ingredients of a successful business.
Since its first location in Point Pleasant Borough opened in 2008, Bubbakoo’s Burritos has quickly become a Jersey Shore institution. Shortly after partners Paul Altero and Bill Hart – natives of Brick and Point Pleasant – found success with their first store, locations in Manasquan and Brick quickly opened. In the next few years, the chain grew to seven locations in Ocean and Monmouth counties.
Now, the owners say, it’s time to expand. This week, Bubbakoo’s opened its first location outside the Shore area, near the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
“We really thought that Rutgers, strategically, was a very good decision,” Altero explained. “It’s a center point for a lot of different students who come from all different areas of New Jersey. Geographically, we’re going to get a lot of exposure in that market. It’s a good foothold into different parts of New Jersey. We think if we can develop some kind of foundation there, it will be enormous for the brand.”
More exposure will help Bubbakoo’s – which takes its name from a nickname Altero earned in college – in the franchise market, which the company will enter in April.
Altero and Hart met while working for the Johnny Rockets chain of restaurants, where Altero was Hart’s supervisor. When the company reorganized, Altero decided to start his own business and asked Hart to come along for the ride, starting with sleeping accommodations on his couch.
“We opened up the first restaurant with a home equity loan on my house and some credit cards,” said Altero. From there, each new restaurant was opened with proceeds from the last.
Altero handled much of the behind-the-scenes work in the beginning, with Hart manning the counter at the Point Pleasant Borough store and running the restaurant. Nowadays, managers are hired for each restaurant while both owners are involved in running the business as a whole.
Bubbakoo’s has found success at the Jersey Shore, a market crowded with local institutions such as Surf Taco and corporate chains such as Chipotle, by sticking to its community-minded roots and differentiating its menu items. Bubbakoo’s frequently hosts fundraisers for high school organizations and local nonprofits, even for schools located in towns where there is no physical location.
“First and foremost, it’s been about community,” said Altero. “Our typical opening plan is to immediately get involved in the community, get in touch with teachers, schools and organizations.”
The food options differ from the competition as well.
“From the beginning, Chipotle and Surf Taco were very inspiring,” Altero said. “What makes us different is that we roll up with different items. We have a crispy buffalo chicken burrito, a Sriracha pork burrito. Then we did a cooked-to-order steak burrito. We like to integrate the freshness and the cook-to-order side of it. There aren’t a lot of places where you can get an A1 double steak burrito.”
The Chiwawa, a panko-crusted cheese rice ball that is smothered in nacho cheese and includes a customer’s choice of meat, is the restaurant’s signature item.
The third ingredient of the not-so-secret sauce that has led to so much success is the focus on service, Altero said. The staff greets customers when they walk in, engages them in conversation and customizes each meal. Bubbakoo’s also prides itself on a high retention rate, with many of the same crew members staying on board for years at a time. Recently, the company instituted a bonus program.
“We care about people,” Altero said.
Ready for Expansion
The New Brunswick location, at 53 Easton Avenue in a former Cluck-U Chicken restaurant adjacent to the Rutgers campus, is now open. It offers the same menu and friendly service as the Shore locations but with one extra feature – delivery service, a must in a city of dorm-dwellers.
The company also recently launched a smartphone app that enables hungry customers to order from their phones, customize their order, pay online and even leave a note for the person who will be preparing the food.
While New Brunswick may be a springboard to Altero and Hart opening their chain to a new part of New Jersey, the overall expansion will be strategic in nature. When the company begins its franchising effort this spring, initial plans call for two or three franchised locations per year, all in New Jersey. The growth via franchising will mirror the company’s expansion thus far – steady, but smart, seven years in the making.
“We’re pretty ambitious and really believe that from a franchising standpoint, we’ve proven the concept,” said Altero. “I don’t think we would have been able to do that if we opened two or three restaurants and then went right to franchise.”
While locations across the state are the next step, Bubbakoo’s is still a Jersey Shore company at heart, relocating its corporate headquarters from Point Pleasant Beach to Wall Township in the next week, and keeping its sights in the local market.
“We still believe there’s plenty of room in Ocean County for more growth,” Altero said.