In 2008, Bill Hart and Paul Altero, former co-workers at Johnny Rocket’s, decided to open their own burrito joint on Bridge Avenue in Point Pleasant Borough. Altero worked behind the scenes and Hart was tasked with making burritos for the small restaurant, which shared a space in a strip mall with Jersey Mike’s subs.
Fast forward 12 years, and Bubbakoo’s Burritos – named after Altero’s nickname in college – is nationally recognized as one of the most successful franchise opportunities in America. What began in the small store in Point Pleasant, designed in a surfing theme with plenty of palm tree photos on the wall, can now be found where such flora grows just outside. The company just announced its first location in Las Vegas, and is planning a major entry to the Tampa Bay market. Last month, Bubbakoo’s signed the contract for its 100th location.
“It’s exciting because a lot of our growth has been organic,” said Hart. “We focus on doing the right thing by our customers, our communities and our employees. We’re in the people business first, and that’s everything.”
Indeed, a number of the company’s newest franchisees once worked the counter at some of the local Jersey Shore locations and are now restaurant owners themselves. Growth was always important to Hart and Altero but, they said, people always came first. The chain has experienced great success promoting from within, utilizing employees and managers from the Shore area to travel across the country to train their new colleagues.
After much success with the original nine New Jersey locations owned in-house, Bubbakoo’s spread to New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and California. Many more are on the way.
While the climb to 100 restaurants – described by Hart as “slow and steady” – is exciting, the focus of its two founding partners has been to carry the community-minded spirit of Bubbakoo’s that was perfected in its first locations in Point Borough, Brick and Manasquan, across America.
“We get involved in the local baseball teams, to the schools, and we have our Read It To Eat It program,” said Hart.
Read It To Eat It has been a major success in itself, rewarding students who read five books with a free meal. The program has grown to cover 200 schools with 50,000 students.
Bubbakoo’s has also proven that the restaurant industry still attracts interest (and investors) in the coronavirus era. Now, more than ever, high-quality takeout and delivery options represent immense value – and the great level of customers’ trust that has been established over the past decade is its own important factor.
“In the beginning [of the pandemic] when everything was unknown, we dipped, and when the full-service restaurants shut down it certainly wasn’t good,” said Hart. “But people knew us from takeout and delivery and trusted us to begin with. Then we shifted our focus to, ‘How do we increase delivery and take-away?’”
Bubbakoo’s began focusing on digital advertising and perfecting its delivery operations – reaching potential customers working from home virtually and (with the help of delivery drivers) in person.
“We opened up six locations during Covid and signed 30 more franchisees,” Hart said.
Hart was 28-years-old when he co-founded the business that would change his life, create hundreds of jobs with upward-mobility and carve out an enviable position in the quick-serve restaurant sector. The journey from the burrito counter to plane rides across the country opening new locations hasn’t phased him, however, and the company has largely developed its image around the friendly, laid-back and quality-focused vibe that made the original Jersey Shore restaurants so popular.
“I see this and I just feel… blessed, excited, wowed,” he said. “We always had that vision, but we didn’t know how long it would take to get here and what it would look like. Now, this is our life and our future.”
From this point on, all of the new Bubbakoo’s locations will be franchises. The company has been lauded for its smart growth and ability to train and support its franchisees with the help of long-time, veteran employees who built their careers alongside the company’s owners.
The Las Vegas store on Sahara Avenue, a short ride from the famed strip, is something of a milestone in itself.
“I’m so excited to bring Bubbakoo’s to Vegas,” James Rogers, the franchise owner, told QSR magazine. “This is a huge opportunity to introduce a new crowd to this Jersey Shore staple.”
The franchising market has been doing well, especially with some people looking to start new careers as of late. When the company organized a dinner out to celebrate the contract for the hundredth location, there were technically 104 locations by the time the team arrived at the restaurant.
Hart said that no matter how large Bubbakoo’s grows and how many locations open, some things will never change.
“It doesn’t really change the way you think as you open more stores,” he said. “It’s natural – you wouldn’t grow it if you weren’t having fun. And it’s a good time bringing on great people who are having fun and helping us grow. It doesn’t stop.”
“I wake up in the morning and just hope for those good calls,” Hart said. “It’s the old saying, when you love what you do, it’s not even work.”