No sacrifice too great for Bubbakoo’s founders

What would you sacrifice to start a restaurant? One of Bubbakoo’s founders quit his job, gave up his bed and moved across the country to bunk up with his business partner.

“I ended up sleeping in Paul’s spare bedroom. I moved from Chicago to Point Pleasant to make things happen,” says Bill Hart, referring to Paul Altero and the New Jersey town where Bubbakoo’s launched.

“My wife now, she was my girlfriend at the time—she moved with us, sharing the dream,” he adds with a rueful laugh.

That was 2008, and times are solidly better now at Bubbakoo’s Burritos. They’ve just opened their eighth corporate store, with average unit volumes last year hitting $718,000—a nice number compared with a relatively modest investment. The initial price is $161,000, including the $30,000 franchisee fee, which Altero calls low end.

“Our whole model is going to be to help people get into existing operations. If you want to build a pad location for a million dollars, no problem,” Altero says, but he doesn’t recommend it. “What we’ve found successful is to get into pre-existing restaurants.”

The buildout costs and rents are low, and he claims Bubbakoo’s customers love the burritos so much they’ll seek them out. “We’ve actually gone into locations where in some instances you can’t even find the spot, and they’re doing very well today.”

Bubbakoo’s began franchising this year, and is finding the early going just as tough as the initial launch of the restaurant. All the corporate stores are clustered on the East Coast, in just three counties, which is a plus for supporting new operators but a minus when convincing franchisees a concept will work anywhere.

Bubbakoo’s owners feel they’ve done things right, working with established consultants and law firms to set up the franchise properly. “We’re not frustrated,” Altero says about trying to find prospects, but “it’s been a little bit of an eye-opening experience. We need the first right franchisee. The number of qualified people—the pickings are slim.”

Both men worked at Johnny Rockets for years, and drew many lessons from that successful brand. “We went to the school of Rockets, we say, and learned how to do it,” Hart says.

Altero’s biggest lesson? “I learned the value of awesome people, and if you have awesome people you can do anything,” he says, and he’s hired some of his team away from Johnny Rockets. “I also learned all the nuts and bolts of how things operate” in a franchise system.

Altero is a New Jersey native, and he wanted to catch the vibe of the Jersey Shore in his restaurants. “There’s a lot of action here. It’s kind of a fun, laid-back place,” he says, with sand-colored floors to remind you of walking on the beach. The ceiling is painted blue, to remind you of the sky. A cool, avocado green is on the walls, “a specialized color made just for us. And in the middle is a tiki-hut, as if you just got off the beach,” Altero says. “It’s a place where people come and they feel like a little vacation.”

They’re banking on their food to set them apart from places like Qdoba, Sweeto Burrito, and of course the biggest burrito of all, Chipotle. Their chiwawa is “wildly popular,” Altero cites as an example, a spinoff on an Italian rice ball. It’s rice and cheese rolled in egg and Panko bread crumbs and then deep fried. They press it out and put nacho cheese on top.

Bubbakoo’s roots go back to Altero’s college days. He’s 43 now, but back in 1992, 1993 he was attending the University of Delaware and liked a place called Burrito Brothers. His nickname was Bubba, and when he had to create a mock business plan in college, the name Bubbakoo’s was born. “It’s zippy, it’s fun, it’s unique,” Altero says.

Hart adds: “He offered his bedroom, so I had to take the name.”

Both men are glad the lean times are well in the past. “That lasted for about a year,” Altero says about sharing close quarters. “I high-fived my fiancé when he left.”