Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Rayme Rossello of Comida [Photo: Adam Larkey]
A year ago today, Rayme Rossello, a seasoned industry veteran opened the Denver outpost of her restaurant. Comida, a modern Mexican cantina that got its start as a hot pink food truck, was the first business to open at the Source.
Rossello's experience with this popular RiNo restaurant over the last twelve months differs vastly from what she created at the original Longmont location. Some of the differences are by design — chef Martin Campos creates specials unlike those served in Longmont — and some were purely a result of circumstances. Eater had a chance to sit down with Rossello and talk about spacial issues, not getting bored, and the menu.
How did the idea of opening another Comida come about? I was approached three weeks after we had opened the Longmont location. We were really busy which was exciting because we were out in the middle of nowhere in this little neighborhood. I had no intentions of opening another restaurant for at least a year to a year and a half and I certainly didn't have the money to do it. The Longmont Comida was really a gift; this guy who was my landlord and who has become an investor in Comida basically just wanted to give me the restaurant. The previous restaurant had gone out of business and he told me to make it work. The ceilings and chairs were pink so I didn't really spend any money to make it look the way it does. I bought groceries and booze, paid the employees, bought the license, and we were done.
Since it was not on my radar when I was approached I said, "no, thank you." Then I was pursued further. I was convinced it was really terrifying but it seemed like it would work. I had no idea where the money would come from but I was like "alright let's try it." I signed the lease in July and I was the first person to sign the lease at the Source. We didn't open for another year and a month after signing. For the next six months I thought holy crap what have I done. Can I call my lawyer and get out of it? I was so afraid. I brought my dad here and he looked at the building and was like "good luck honey." I put a lot on the line.
Did your location help with exposure for Comida? I think absolutely but also we were open for two weeks before any other spaces opened and the parking lot and seats were full. With that said though, the energy around the Source itself is 100 percent part of our success. I do believe we grab and build relationships with people that keep coming back just for Comida but being in this space is huge. I also know that being in Denver in general is huge. This restaurant is three times as busy as my Longmont location and there is no comparison. It is not that people don't love the Longmont location or that it is hard to get to it- Denver itself is a draw.
How did you carry over the Comida feel and brand into this new space? I put in a lot of my input but then it became clear that the Source had a very firm design aesthetic that would be implemented regardless of my opinion. Of course though the pink was incorporated. There were elements that I pushed for and they worked with me to have it feel like Comida. For example, having the bar where it is is very important. I got to completely design the layout of the kitchen, which I realize now should have been much bigger. These are the things that we learned. I had no idea that we were going to be as busy as we are. I thought we would feed maybe 1.5 times the number of people we feed in Longmont which is why the line, kitchen, and the walk-in are bigger. This last Friday we served 220 people at lunch. I want to say that we are designed to do that but it is very difficult for us. Those are the things we struggle with. We are so grateful that we are so busy but how do we feed that number of people in the window of time that is lunch which is one hour? It is impossible to do without people having to wait longer than we would like them to.
How have you adapted to having more customers than expected? We added a walk-in outside which helped a ton. I am about to buy a machine called a CVap which will help to cook and hold our braised meats so they don't have to be under the hood. We can't make the space any bigger. There is nowhere to go. It is just a matter of how do we manipulate the kitchen to make it work better. After the first 10 days of being open I took 22 seats out of the restaurant. We learned a lot right away and the learning curve was steep. In almost a year we have figured out how to make things happen quicker without compromising how we make the food.
How do you balance your time now that you have a the truck and two brick and mortar spots to juggle? I am not the one-place-all-day-long person. I like managing people. I think that boring people get bored so I am not a person that gets bored. I do really enjoy going from place to place and building the relationships with my managers, my servers, line cooks, and dishwashers. I wish that I could be here all the time, or more, but that is why I have Chris Stackpole who is an incredible general manager who has been with me since Proto's [the pizzeria chain that Rossello founded with Pam Proto]. We have a relationship that probably spans a 12 year time period. There are quite a few people here that I have had the opportunity to work with for a long period of time.
What was it like during opening week? Opening week was awesome. We were super busy. There was still an insane amount of construction going on in the building but it was just time to open. The second that the health department said go and then we got our liquor license I was like,"let's go!" "Turn the key!" We got our asses handed to us.
Is the menu at the Source different than the Longmont location in any way? The food and cocktails are identical with the exception that they don't do brunch in Longmont. My chef, Martin Campos, can take full credit for the brunch menu. I steered him in the direction and said, "this is what I want to see but you figure out how to make it possible." He is an amazing chef and has a great team. He works really well with sous chef Josh Cosgrove and they figured out how to make things work here. Martin is really great with ceviche so we've added a seasonal ceviche to the menu. I want it to feel like he is the chef and they are my recipes on the main menu. I stand very strong on what is not to be changed. I want it to feel like Comida always, 100 percent. It's definitely my vision and my brand and it is important that that carries through and it should feel distinctive. I don't want to be a chain so I don't want it to feel exactly the same. The space certainly doesn't feel the same as Longmont which is great because Denver is a different customer. We get to have a different price point on the specials and everything else is the same. People spend a little more money here in Denver.
Where do you spend most of your time? I try to get everywhere. I try to touch base with the restaurants every day. Today I will go to Longmont as well. I try to visit all three spots in one day sometimes.
How does it feel to have your one year anniversary for your second restaurant? I would say I feel easier about what goes on every single day. I don't ever feel afraid necessarily because I see that it works. I have never been afraid of going out of business so mile markers to me are more of a celebration of how hard my staff works. I feel like celebrating the one year is more about my staff and our guests who helped us get here. Every day is exciting and different in one way or the other for me so it doesn't feel that different. Not to sound weird, but that is the truth. I am grateful for what goes on here. We certainly don't do it as well as we probably could or should every single day but we are human and there are 60 humans here working hard in this particular 3,300 square feet to make it work. A lot of days at the end of the day it feels amazing for them and then there are days we surely fail and shit hits the fan and somebody is yelling at somebody. I mean it is what happens.
I can't believe a year has passed. In addition to opening here in 2013, in that two week period I moved into a new house and the floods hit in Boulder. Those two weeks were incredible. I am super psyched to have a more mellow first two weeks of September here except that I hope business is as busy as ever. Like I said, it is really a celebration of the people who are here every single day who are working their asses off to make it happen.
What is it about your food and beverages that keep people coming back? We are not traditional Mexican. It is a blend of Mexican and Southern USA, like Georgia, flavors from the south. It is not that I was the person that thought of it but we don't do a plate with three tacos and side of beans and rice. You can certainly do that on your own if you want but everything is a la carte. You can spend four bucks or 40 bucks. I feel like our prices are really affordable especially given the high level of ingredients that we use. The protein that we use is expensive. Martin is breaking down whole fish here. We don't open cans for anything. It is all real. It takes a lot of preparation. I think that our food is very uniquely Comida because of the flavors I have been using now for the last four years on and off the truck. They translated from the truck to the restaurant and they feel pretty distinctive. None of it is brain surgery. We didn't reinvent the wheel and we aren't creating something that is brand new. But I feel like the flavors and the ingredients are very real and you can taste the difference in that way. It is our tacos people come for and our griddled pork carnitas taco just won Top Taco.
What is next for you and Comida? I absolutely will open another Comida. The one that I am really starting to work on is in North Boulder at the Armory building, but that is three years away. I do look forward to doing one in Boulder. That is my home and I love the community. It is the hardest market to get into because Boulder is the most expensive in some ways. Boulder doesn't make it easy for small business to open, in my experience, but once you are in you are in. There are some other opportunities that have presented themselves for Comida as well so we will see what happens.
— By Kelsey Colt