In 1995, a young Paul Altero wrote a business plan for a class assignment at the University of Delaware. The name he made up for his mock business was Bubbakoo’s Burritos.
Back then, made-to-order burrito concepts were not as ubiquitous as they are today, so Altero put the idea on the backburner. He spent the next few years with Pizzeria Uno, Nordstrom, and finally Johnny Rockets, where he met and worked with Bill Hart for 10 years. The burrito dream was rekindled during this time, as Altero first experienced Chipotle.
The two left Johnny Rockets in 2008 to open the first Bubbakoo’s Burritos on the Jersey Shore, sharing dining space with another Garden State concept. “It was an instant success. People eating at Jersey Mike’s would see Bubbakoo’s and want to come back and check it out,” Altero says.
The two partners opened a second location in 2009 and then added about one a year for the next nine years. They started franchising in 2015 and opened the first franchise location in 2016. The number of Bubbakoo’s Burritos units doubled in 2017, with locations sprinkled throughout the eastern half of New Jersey.
Altero says one factor separating Bubbakoo’s from other burrito concepts is a high level of service, which he mastered at Nordstrom, a luxury retailer known for outstanding customer service.
“We believe in connecting with customers [and] having dialogue with customers,” he says. “We’re a fast-casual brand that feels like full service in the dining area. We wow you on the line, and then when you sit down, we check on you, offer refills, and pre-bus your table.”
The variety and quality of food also set Bubbakoo’s apart, Altero says, noting that beyond “standard Mexican fare” like ground beef and chicken, Bubbakoo’s protein choices include hibachi-grilled steak and shrimp, hand-shredded carnitas, and battered mahi mahi. The popular hibachi steak is marinated 24 hours and goes from the grill into a tortilla or bowl while sizzling hot. As for chicken, guests have four options: crispy fried, crispy buffalo, marinated and grilled, and salt-and-pepper shredded. Non-meat options include bean and cheese or vegan Boca patty.
Guests use their selected protein to build burritos or bowls, tacos, quesadillas, nachos, or taco salad, or to top a proprietary menu item called a Chiwawa, which is a deep-fried, softball-sized, panko-crusted cheesy rice ball.
Altero says Bubbakoo’s selection of eight sauces—ranging in flavor and heat from Southern Style BBQ to Sweet Chili and Ghost Pepper—change the entrée flavor profiles and keep things from getting boring.
Bubbakoo’s also offers a wider variety of sides than many burrito concepts. Choices include curly fries, tater tots, jalapeño poppers, and Southwest egg rolls. And there’s a proprietary dessert called Love Chips, which features fried flour tortillas sprinkled with powdered sugar and drizzled with caramel or raspberry sauce. Altero says it’s a popular, high-margin item.
FOUNDERS: Paul Altero and Bill Hart
HQ: Wall, New Jersey
YEAR STARTED: 2008
AVERAGE UNIT VOLUME: $850,000
TOTAL UNITS: 18
FRANCHISE UNITS: 7
Entrée prices at Bubbakoo’s start at $8.50 for ground beef or beans and cheese and go up to $11 for double steak. The average per-person ticket is around $11, but Bubbakoo’s offers a kids’ meal for $3.50 and a $6 student meal for anyone with a valid school ID. The student meal choices include two tacos and chips, four chicken tenders and chips, a cheese quesadilla, a bean burrito and chips, or mini nachos. A fountain drink is also included.
“For students, value is important,” Altero says. “Kids are not rolling in money, but we believe in making Bubbakoo’s affordable for younger people.”
An affordable student option pays off in loyal, long-time customers, Altero says. The kids who were in high school when the first location opened are now bringing their own kids to Bubbakoo’s.
Altero has also realized a dream shared by many who grew up in New Jersey: He’s got a gig at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, known worldwide for launching the career of New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen. Bubbakoo’s Burritos is the exclusive food operator for the music venue. While the company only operates at The Stone Pony during shows, Altero says it’s a lucrative gig and great for the brand.
Bubbakoo’s also has a seasonal beachfront location, but the rest are year-round operations. Most are at in-line shopping centers and range from 1,200 to 2,000 square feet, with seating for 12–65 guests. Altero says all 11 corporate-owned Bubbakoo’s and several franchise locations occupy spaces where previous tenants failed.
“We went into B and C locations and converted failed restaurants into popular, profitable restaurants, and we’ve never closed a location,” Altero says. “That is very popular among franchisees because we’re accessing spots with low entry costs where they can make money.”
Plans are in the works for more Bubbakoo’s locations. Altero anticipates 20 opening in 2018 and reaching between 100 and 200 stores within the next five years.
While more New Jersey stores are included in those numbers, Altero says places like Boston, Chicago, Michigan, and California are in the running, too. “We’re looking for great franchise owners,” he says. “And we have several more corporate stores in mind.”