Q&A: Rick DiRienzo, Rockin’ Baja Coastal Cantina

Rockin’ Baja Coastal Cantina is celebrating its 25th anniversary at a time when Americans aren’t dining out as frequently as they used to or spending as much when they do. Two weeks ago, the five-restaurant California seafood concept slashed the price of its signature Big Baja Bucket for two from USD 49.99 (EUR 38.89) to USD 29.99 (EUR 23.33) for 2009. The menu item includes slipper lobster tails, shrimp, grilled chicken and carne asada, along with all-you-can-eat beans, rice, flour tortillas, honey chili butter and chips and salsa. The deal has helped Rockin’ Baja founder Rick DiRienzo generate restaurant traffic. DiRienzo talked to SeafoodSource on Thursday about surviving the challenging economic climate and his plans for the future.

Is the Original Baja Bucket deal working?
The idea is to get people into the restaurant and reacquainted with Rockin’ Baja, remembering what it’s all about. The bucket is very filling. It’s always been our No. 1 seller. But it was kind of disheartening the first week. Among the five stores, we only sold like 30 or 40 [buckets]. And then all of a sudden our second ad broke, and one of our stores sold 72 [buckets], another sold 57. People are saying, “Where are we going to spend our hard-earned money?” They’re watching their money more. Taking USD 20 off a USD 50 item, that’s a big chuck. It’s a great deal for people. It really is.

What percentage of sales does seafood represent?
My buckets, all of which have seafood in them, account for 66 percent of my total food sales. And most of my other food sales come from a trip my executive chef, corporate chef and director of operations made to Mexico about a year ago in search of the best tacos. And, boy, have they been a hit. The basically represent the rest of [total food sales]. We call them Outrageous Tacos, because it’s nothing like you can get in the States. They’re totally different.

How has the recession affected your business?
It’s tough. It’s really tough. My Newport Beach location and my Old Town [San Diego] location are down 18 percent in sales comparable to last year. What’s really strange is sales at my Oceanside location is up 20-plus percent and my Gaslamp [San Diego] location is up 14 percent.

You’re scheduled to open three California restaurants in the next three months — one in LaQuinta, one in Huntington Beach, and one in San Jose. You also have deals with franchisees in Austin, Texas, and Biloxi, Miss. Does your concept have legs?
It does, but the restaurants have to be in the right location. In Austin, [the franchisee] is trying to open on a lake where there are a few other restaurants. You need to be near the water or in a touristy area where there’s a lot of foot traffic. And in Biloxi, once [the franchisee] gets going she’ll make a killing down there. But there are areas where I don’t think it would work like in northern and central areas [of the country].



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