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Bubbakoo’s Burritos continues to expand into the Midwest

Bubbakoo’s Burritos had another successful year in 2023. The surf and skater-themed concept, founded in 2008 on the Jersey Shore, opened 17 locations and ended the year with 115 restaurants, according to co-founder Paul Altero. Turnover grew by 24.6%.

Restaurant openings accelerated in 2024, he said, with 14 new restaurants opened so far this year and another 13 in the pipeline.

The concept is largely franchised, with twelve business units, and operates mainly in inline locations in the suburbs.

Altero and co-founder Bill Hart, who met while working for casual dining chain Johnny Rockets, pride themselves on using a concept that’s different from other fast-casual burrito chains. It has a casual atmosphere and atypical menu items like the Chiwawa – panko-breaded cheesy rice balls topped with burrito fillings – and unusual proteins like hibachi steak and shrimp. Specialty burritos include one with General Tso’s chicken and another inspired by the Philly cheesesteak. Southwestern egg rolls are among the appetizers and desserts, including fried Oreo cookies and “love chips,” fried flour tortilla chips dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with raspberry or caramel sauce.

Bubbakoo’s operates primarily in the Northeast and Florida and is expanding into the Midwest, particularly Ohio, where restaurants stretch from Cleveland to Cincinnati.

The chain opened some locations in California several years ago, but “we didn’t do very well,” Altero said.

“I just don’t think we had the brand identity,” he said. “I think we’ll get there in time.”

Same-store sales fell 4% last year, but Altero said its franchisees are satisfied and happy to see the chain continue to grow.

“Satisfied franchisees tell other franchisees about us, and they want to join the brand,” he said, adding that the new franchisees come to him organically. “There is no real marketing behind it.”

Altero said Bubbakoo’s has also benefited from the adversity it has faced. He and Hart opened their first location during the Great Recession, and most of their restaurants were still on the Jersey Shore when it was hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

During the corona crisis, Altero and his team discovered operational efficiencies and were able to reduce the restaurants’ footprint from almost 2,000 square meters to just 1,400 square meters.

To adapt to rising costs in 2023, Bubbakoo’s introduced value meals. “They are very successful. For $8.99 you can get two tacos, chips and a drink,” he said. “We have several options in that category, and we thought that was crucial.”

The chain also began promoting sports in markets where it has a large presence, including the New York Yankees’ spring training in Florida.

“We had signage in the stadium, and I can’t tell you how many people took out their cell phones, took a screenshot of it and sent it to me,” he said.

They also partnered with the stadiums of Rutgers University and Ohio State, and, in Major League Baseball, with the Cincinnati Reds, where a Bubbakoo’s banner appears once every nine innings. “(That) was pretty exciting for us because we are such a small company,” Altero said.

He added that he sees a long road ahead for the concept to grow. “It’s only a matter of time before we have 500 stores and are on our way to 1,000 stores.”

Contact Bret Thorn at (email protected)