Leaping Up the Ladder: From Busboy to Owner-Operator
Two months ago Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar opened its third location in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the small chain is set to open its fourth outlet this summer in West Palm Beach, Florida.
While there’s nothing groundbreaking about additional locations being added to a chain, what is unusual is that just 14 years ago, owner Rocco Mangel was a busboy in a restaurant similar to those he owns and operates today.
How did such a long climb up the career ladder happen so quickly and for someone with so little experience?
Mangel may not have had much experience but his forebears did: Both his father and his grandfather managed restaurants, his grandfather in the famed Copacabana in New York, and Rocco worked for a while for his father, so he did have some idea of the business.
But in 1997, the then 22-year-old Mangel left New York for Florida, to seek his fortune.
His first job was as a busboy at Big City Tavern, owned by Big Time Restaurant Group, in Fort Lauderdale, where he was quickly promoted to bar-back and then waiter. “I just kept telling my bosses I wanted to do more,” he says, of his three-year stint there.
In 2000, he moved to GiGi’s Tavern and Bar in MIzner Park, Florida, and moonlighted at New York Prime, a steakhouse, for four years.
A quick stint in a nightclub followed then Mangel joined a new Mexican restaurant venture, MoQuila in Boca Raton.
“I ended up going there to be a host. Two weeks later I was GM. They just promoted me; they thought it was a good fit. I was there for about a year as the GM, then I moved to an Italian restaurant next door that was owned by the same company and was GM then manager of operations for both restaurants.
Ten Years On
By 2007, ten years after he’d first arrived in Florida, Mangel decided he wanted more. It was time for his own restaurant He cashed in some investment property and spent six months traveling around the U.S. and Mexico for what he calls R&C—Research and Copy.
“I traveled the country—I went to Mexico twice, Dallas, Scottsdale, Phoenix, New York and L.A.—and went to 64 different restaurants to take a little of somebody else’s idea.”
A chance meeting in a restaurant when he returned to Florida, led to a partnership with his Big Time Restaurant Group, his original employer in Florida.
Together with three executives from the restaurant company, Mangel purchased what was to become his first location, in West Palm Beach, Florida, and started developing his concept.
The first Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar opened in December 2007 and according to Mangel, “ittook off right away.”
So did the second restaurant, opened in Boca Raton two years later, and the signs are all positive with the third location, which opened in February 2011.
The restaurants are authentic, which is what makes them different, says Mangel, who has now traveled to Mexico for more R&C a total of 12 times. The authenticity of the restaurants comes from both the food and the décor, he explains.
The walls are hung with street signs from Mexico and artifacts from the Día del Muerte. Many of the pork skin chairs and the tables are hand made in Mexico and the chandeliers have become a trademark. “I saw them in a furniture store in Mexico and I had them customized for me. I would not open a Rocco’s without them,” Mangel says. These chandeliers are handcrafted from steel and made up of clusters of dozens of stars.
It’s the same with the bars, he explains. They’re all built in Mexico of mesquite wood, which is one of the most popular woods in Mexico “so it really brings Mexico to the U.S. as far as atmosphere goes.”
What makes the restaurants authentic, Mangel says, is also what they are not. There are no donkeys hanging from the ceilings or bull-fighting pictures that he says “would feel more like a theme restaurant in Disney.”
There are no plastic tablecloths, but even more importantly, there is no Americanized food. There are no fajitas, no sour cream. Instead, molcajetes (served in a lava rock bowl) take the place of fajitas and crema is served instead of sour cream. The mocajetes, along with the signature tacos and house-made guacamole and salsa are probably the most popular dishes, Mangel says.
The Tequila Forte
What also distinguishes Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar is the tequilas. There are between 175 and 250 in each restaurant. “Tequilas are my forte,” Mangel points out, adding that he believes he has the biggest tequila list in Florida.
These tequilas are served as shots and as cocktails, and as a special theatrical piece, Mangel himself dances on the bar in white platform shoes whenever he’s in one of his restaurants and pours cold Patron tequila into customers’ glasses and directly into their mouths.
“I think people come for the show,” he says. “It happens whenever I’m there, but no one else can do it. I think if I let anyone else do it we just become another theme restaurant. I like to do it because I like to interact with our guests.”
But that’s not all. In 2009 Mangel developed his own house-brand tequila in collaboration with Milagro Tequila. Rocco’s Tacos’ version is called Milagro Blanco and is a premium tequila that’s on a par with other tequilas the restaurants stock, at $9 a shot.
Mangel also sells it by the bottle for $75, and gets through (with the bottle sales and the restaurants) 10,000 bottles per year. Marketing the beverage through Facebook and Twitter certainly doesn’t harm it, he says.
If the addition of the fourth location of Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar doesn’t make it clear enough, the brand is a success. Expansion could be in the works and the fifth location could be outside Florida.
“But we don’t want to expand too fast so we get ahead of ourselves,” Mangel says. “We want to keep developing the concept and the brand. We’d like to open up all over the country but it depends on the economy and logistics. We have to see what suits Rocco’s.”