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In the Kitchen: Bringing Baja to Biloxi

Rockin' Baja Lobster rejiggers/modifies franchise concept for mainstream U.S. markets

Rockin' Baja Coastal Cantina is the new moniker for
    the San Diego-based concept. - Photo courtesy of Rockin' Baja Coastal Cantina
By Joan M. Lang
May 01, 2008

Sometimes you have to slow down before you speed up. Rockin' Baja Lobster, a six-unit seafood concept founded in 1983, in early April announced its new name, Rockin' Baja Coastal Cantina, and its plans for 44 new franchises after putting the brakes on two years ago to completely retool the menu. The company also unveiled a new tagline, "Eat, Drink and Be Baja!" that communicates the concept's theme, such as the signature menu items, drinks and beach-themed design.

Founder and CEO Rick DiRienzo originally developed the chain to recreate the experience of the Puerto Nuevo-style Baja California lobster dinners he enjoyed with his parents in the 1960s. In this once-small fishing area 50 miles south of San Diego, recalls DiRienzo, "you'd go right into the living rooms of peoples' houses and they'd serve you fresh lobster fried in lard, with soft tortillas with salsa and beans and rice."

"Now of course they're all multimillion dollar restaurants," he says, laughing. But DiRienzo was determined to create the funky, laid-back but festive experience of Puerto Nuevo when he opened his first Rockin' Baja Lobster in Bonita, Calif. The signature menu item - virtually the only item at first - was the now-trademarked Original Baja Bucket, a rustic steel bucket filled with carne asada, grilled chicken, Baja shrimp and slipper lobster tails flash-fried in the shell and seasoned with Mexican spices. Served with rice, beans, tortillas and a trip to the signature create-your-own Caesar salad bar, the bucket remains RB's single best-selling menu item.

Unique niche menu items, a beach shack ambience and a bar dispensing beer, margaritas, mojitos and other tropical cocktails, are the core of the Rockin' Baja experience, which grew to four company-owned locations in Southern California and attracted franchisees in two other markets. In 2004, DiRienzo signed on with franchise development firm Fransmart (which also represents such companies as zpizza and Elevation Burger) to begin growing the concept. Along the way, Kelly Mullarney was brought on board as RB's corporate chef and director of kitchen operations.

Over the past year, DiRienzo and Mullarney redesigned and streamlined the menu, adding new items, refiguring prices and fine-tuning kitchen systems in preparation for relaunching the franchising push later this year. The Baja Buckets remain at the core, with 10 different combinations, priced at $17.95 per person to $69.95 for two for the Golden Sombrero Fiesta Bucket (steak, shrimp, a whole lobster, chicken and king crab legs).

A new category of Outrageous Tacos has been added, offering a lower-priced menu alternative that also answers the need for lunch items. Filled with everything from fried or grilled mahimahi, shrimp and lobster to carnitas and carne asada, the tacos have "taken off like crazy," says DiRienzo.

Seafood constitutes about 60 percent of total sales on a menu that ranges from fried calamari, lobster corn chowder and Baja Shrimp Cocktail to burgers, salads and tostadas (such as the Baja Shrimp Molcajete) and fajitas. Rocky's Platters, including a Lobster Lover's Combo (Baja-style lobster taco, lobster enchilada and chowder) and Carne Asada and Tequila Shrimp, along with a market-priced whole Baja Style Lobster, round out the bill of fare.

In the process of redesigning the menu, clinkers have been dropped, certain categories have been consolidated, and kitchen procedures have been streamlined. The average check increased by $2 to $3 per person, to $28 at dinner (half that at lunch), and food costs were shaved by 3 to 3.5 percent. Kitchens were outfitted with 6-foot cold tables to function as the taco station.

Mullarney has helped DiRienzo with the increasingly tricky issue of purchasing seafood. Slipper lobsters have become one of the biggest challenges.

"When we started out in business, we were practically alone in the market," explains DiRienzo. "Slipper lobsters would be used as filler in containers from Taiwan, and we could get them for three bucks a pound. Now the big Las Vegas casinos are buying them as a way to offer lobster, and prices can get as high as $11 or $12 a pound."

RB contracts slipper lobsters four to six months at a time from Leong Kuba Seafoods in San Diego in order to keep prices as stable as possible, purchasing the frozen raw, 1- to 2-ounce tails.

"Because we have such a high volume, handling [the tails] is actually quite easy," says DiRienzo. "We know how much we'll need on any given day, and thaw that amount under running water every morning."

Last year, Mullarney went to Mazatlan to arrange a contract for a year's worth of shrimp, the concept's other high-volume product. In addition to Leong Kuba, the company works with Pacific Pride and U.S. Foodservice.

In preparation to begin franchising again, the chain has also simplified some of the steps of service to hasten table turnover times and increase volumes.

"In a casual, high-volume operation like ours, you don't have to bring out a dessert menu or talk about coffee drinks," notes DiRienzo. "Customers want to order and then be left alone so they can have fun."

"You can give great service and use effective suggestive selling but it's got to be appropriate to the concept," adds DiRienzo. "Training and service are still very important - there's a mandatory preshift meeting everyday - but it has to fit the concept." In the process, says DiRienzo, about 10 minutes have been shaved off the turnover time.

Part of the training includes a rare degree of information sharing to get everyone following the same goal. Managers will talk about sales volumes, and what the goals are. "If we need to shave points off labor costs, we'll share that goal with our employees so they can be aware of time on the clock."

Franchises have been sold for San Jose and Austin, Texas, and Biloxi, Miss. DiRienzo acknowledges that one of the challenges moving forward will be introducing people who aren't familiar with the Puerto Nuevo experience to the concept.

"That's part of the reason for the menu changes and for the décor package, which recreates that beachfront experience," says DiRienzo. "We need to continually remind people that we're not a Mexican restaurant - we're about Baja-style seafood."


Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine


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