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Rayme Rossello

How food trucks spurred Denver’s Comida

Owner Rayme Rossello—who says working a food truck is the hardest job in the business—shares some lessons she’s learned over the last two decades.

Rayme Rosello owns Comida, which has two Denver-area locations and a food truck and another location opening soon. She recently spoke to me about getting started in the restaurant business and the lessons she’s learned in the nearly two decades she has been an owner. 

How did you get started in the restaurant business?

I started Proto’s Pizza with my partner at the time, Pam Proto. We opened five Proto’s Pizzerias together. We started with one in Longmont, Colo., in 1999 and opened four along the Front Range and one up in Boise, just to try our hand out of state. We did that in seven years. And then I sold my half to her in 2007. After I left she opened one more, and they’re still going strong.

Opening five locations in seven years sounds like it was a pretty busy time.

It was pretty busy for sure. We were just scared to death for the first little bit. I think each time we opened a new location, I would just wonder how in the heck we were going to get it all done and where was the money going to come from and how to make it all happen. But Pam is very tenacious and I learned so much from her over the years about putting your right foot forward and showing up and working hard. We hired really great people because obviously you can’t run five restaurants alone, especially with one in an out-of-state area. It was a great opportunity. We worked really well together for that whole time.

Rayme Rossello
Comida owner Rayme Rossello. Photo: Rayme Rossello

What made you decide to branch out?

I love pizza and I love Proto’s and I still eat it about once a week, but I just was sort of antsy to do my own thing. I put myself through pastry school just before she bought me out, just to learn a part of the restaurant world that I was completely unfamiliar with and also very uncomfortable with. I didn’t want to go through $60,000 worth of chef’s school, but I wanted to learn a little of the back-of-the-house side of things. So I did the pastry thing and that was a great eye-opener for me just in terms of knowing that I never wanted to be a pastry chef. But, I still love making pastries. I just made fresh peach ice cream this morning here at home before I went to work. I love the pastry side of things from a home perspective, but not from a real world restaurant perspective. 

After that I actually bought into a small restaurant in Boulder and co-owned that for a year with someone. That restaurant is still there, but it just wasn’t the right fit for me. It was an incredible learning experience on many levels, but it wasn’t my lifelong “oh-this-is-going-to-be-a-great-business-partnership.” It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. After a year I worked on sort of dissolving that partnership and relationship from a business perspective.

That lead to your food truck, right?

Yes. I was ready to really do something at that point just one hundred percent on my own. I didn’t have a ton of money left in terms of some extra cash in the bank to start a whole new business. I thought about what I could do on a smaller budget with a little bit less commitment perhaps than a restaurant. The food truck thing had just really started coming around. This was 2009. And in 2010 I eventually started it. 

Rayme Rossello quoteIt turned out food trucks weren’t legal in Boulder at the time. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know only because there were none. It seemed like such a great idea to me. It didn’t even cross my mind that they wouldn’t be legal. I knew of somebody else that had tried to start one but it ended up not happening and I didn’t know why it had failed. 

I put down $60,000 on a truck in East Brunswick, N.J., was having it built out, having it shipped out on a flatbed to get to me here in Boulder. I was going through that process in trying to get city licenses and that’s when I learned they were not legal, after having spent all of that money. I don’t always do things in the right order (laughs). It was going to be really difficult to make it happen. Five and a half years later and it’s more than happening, which took a lot of hard work, especially in that first year and a half. 

We were trying to figure out how to not get arrested, and where can we go make money without being tracked down. Where can we go without somebody calling the cops, because I was making them mad for parking somewhere on the street, even if it was a long distance away from the front door of their restaurants? So I didn’t do that very much. I figured out another way to make money and pay the bills and when the opportunity presented itself to open a restaurant – that’s when I thought this may really work. After just a year and a half of running the food truck, I realized that was a hard way to make a living. The hardest, actually. 

Overcoming challenges in management

(continued from page 1)

I read an article where you said that every time you’ve ever second-guessed yourself it’s been done out of fear, but when you jump in with both feet and do something anyway the doors kind of opened for you. How have you learned to embrace fear?

Fear is a natural part of life. It’s easy to look on any number of different blogs where they talk about restaurant openings and closings within the last month, and you see how many, with very good intentions and sometimes great ideas, start and within a year they’re closed. With Proto’s, when we opened our doors at that first location, we had, I think, $2,000 in the bank account on the day that we opened. There was no room for error. We had signed a lease for a long period of time, and then there we were, two of us about to make a living from one pizzeria and $2,000 in the bank. I think we were very lucky. Often people have the best intentions and the worst ideas. 

Rayme Rossello quote

I was actually thinking about our concept last night. People open small little sort of street side cafes but they have six tables and a small menu and they think, “I can do this. I can make this work.” That’s a lot like opening a food truck. You’re thinking to yourself that it’s a small commitment. But the bottom line is unless you show up every single day and make it work and make the food delicious and serve it in a way that makes people want to come back, they’re not going to. If you only have six tables, or you just have a food truck, and a two-hour window of time during the day to feed people, if you screw that up, what do you do? With the food truck there were times when we would spend three hours prepping in the morning. We’d go out and it would be a bomb — we’d sell $70 (of food). With me and two other people on the truck, $70 doesn’t even pay for gas, let alone all of the other things. 

The fear is real. And you have to manage it and also manage all of the moving parts that make up service in the service industry in regards to restaurants. It’s a lot. And a lot of people don’t know what they’re doing. A lot of times it’s naiveté. They think it looks really fun. But the bottom line is, in the middle of the night when you wake up at 2:30 in the morning, you bolt up out of bed because you think to yourself: Holy crap, it’s payroll taxes, it’s Wednesday tomorrow. And there’s not enough money in the bank account. 

Have you changed your management style over the years?

Absolutely. I’ve had experiences with people who are total hotheads and it’s clear to me that that’s no way to manage or lead. Nobody likes it when people blow up at them. Leading by instilling fear in people is a great way to make people not want to stick around. And then the opposite side of that is just being completely dispassionate and not available for people, not listening. Not watching from the extreme end of market trends to just the minutiae of what’s actually happening in the dish pit today. It’s a broad spectrum of stuff to pay attention to and there’s only 24 hours in a day and some of those you have to sleep and also have a life. 

Rayme Rossello quote

This has been one of the key things for me. I’m not an hour-counter. I don’t talk to people about how much I work. I don’t calculate that stuff in my head unless it’s been too long since I’ve had a day off. But in general, I feel like a good manager-owner. I have to have time for myself. It’s how I regroup and show up ready to be in charge again, be the boss. Nobody wants a boss who is just downtrodden and tired and like a martyr. That’s just a bummer to me. I wouldn’t want a boss like that and I don’t want anybody on my management team to be that way. 

One of the questions that I ask people when I hire them, especially when they’re going to be in leadership positions, is what do you like to do when you’re not at work? What’s important to you? Do they hike? Do they just go out to the bars all night long? Are they the kind of people who love to go out and eat and enjoy the dining experience? What do they do? Do they like to read? Do they read cookbooks? Are they informed? What makes them tick? Interesting people make for interesting managers. And boring people get bored, I guess (laughs). 

New horizons for Comida

​(continued from page 2)

You got the truck in 2010, opened one location in 2012 and a second in 2013. That's pretty intense.

It was, a lot. The second restaurant, that whole opening was a crazy month’s period of time. I had sold my house in order to get money to go towards the opening of the new restaurant and just timing all of that and getting a loan and the SBA, the bank and all of that stuff. Thank God I have an amazing bookkeeper who works for me pretty much full time and she has really neat handwriting and is a great bean-counter. Those are the little things and sometimes my time is better spent doing other things. 

Two weeks after opening the first Comida location I moved into a new house. The day I moved in was the day the 100-year flood came to Boulder. It was insane! I grew up wanting to be an actress and wanting to be in the theater and there was always that thing – the show must go on – and that’s the same thing that happens now. You still open your doors. You still show up and make food and serve it.

Rayme Rossello quote

Are you going to keep expanding?

Yeah. Just yesterday I brought home a Sprinter cargo van. I’m growing the indoor catering piece to my business, which is really exciting. And I’m also about a week away, maybe not even that much, from signing a lease on a new location in Aurora in a building called The Stanley Marketplace. That’s another incredible opportunity. It’ll be the third Comida Cantina. I’m proud of the brand, I’m proud of the food. It’s all made from scratch. It’s not brain surgery. It just takes showing up and doing. And so I’m excited to do it again. I think it’ll be great.

Just showing up and doing…

I think a lot of people might look at it as sort of plodding. “Ugh! I’ve got to get up again and do the same thing over again.” But I am 100 percent a morning person. I don’t know how people do it without being a morning person, although my restaurants don’t stay open until midnight or one o’clock, so maybe that’s part of it.

I’m excited every day that I wake up and there are new challenges. And sometimes they hit you in the face like a ton of bricks. Three weeks ago one of my very dearest, sweetest employees – she was just everything, longest tenure at Comida — very unexpectedly let me know that she needed to move on. She needed to take a job that was closer to where she lives, closer to her husband and family. It was a really hard decision for her, and it completely blindsided me. There are moments like that where you think, Holy you-know-what — how do I do this without her? What do I do? What’s the next day going to be like? Who will fill her position? But I know myself well enough to know that freaking out helps nothing. So, if I’m going to freak out I do it by myself in my car – which I did. 

Rayme Rossello quoteThen, after a good night’s sleep and a bunch of just writing stuff down, different ideas, I woke up in the morning with a clear head and some ideas and had a good conversation with her, and I was okay. Within hours this amazing person whom I’ve worked in a different sense – she’s done all my graphics stuff for the last 15 years (even since Proto’s) — stepped up and said, “I’m really interested in talking to you about that position.” I couldn’t be luckier to have her. 

If it were easy then everybody would do it. That’s one of my favorite things to say because it’s true. It’s just not easy. But there was the solution. I think so many people sit and spin in the problem and they show up and they talk about the problem. I had a really great boss at one point (my favorite boss, ever, really the only boss I ever had) who said, “Rayme, if you show up to work consistently and you’re thinking to yourself, I can’t stand that person, why are they doing that? The only person you have to blame is yourself. You’re Rayme Rossello: In charge. This is your world, your reality.”

Parting thoughts?

You can either make it great or it can just suck and you can plod through it every day and that’s not how I want to live or run restaurants. 

Wil Brawley is a partner at Schedulefly, a company that provides restaurants with web-based staff-scheduling and communication software. He is the author of Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success.

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