« May 2008 Table of Contents
In the Kitchen: Bringing Baja to Biloxi
Rockin' Baja Lobster rejiggers/modifies franchise concept for mainstream U.S. markets
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
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
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
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
"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
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,