When fifteen-year-old Rayme Rossello landed her first job — waiting tables in New York City — she just wanted to make a quick buck. “I wanted to be an actress for my whole growing up, so I thought that would be my main focus,” she says. But a few years later, after it became clear that acting was not in the cards, she had a revelatory meal at Gramercy Tavern that encouraged her to reconsider restaurants as a career. When she landed in Boulder to attend the University of Colorado, she learned the ropes from Dave Query, working for him at Q’s.
Her first foray into ownership came in late 1999, when Pam Proto, with whom she was romantically involved at the time, asked Rossello’s stepdad for an investment in what would become the small Proto’s Pizza chain, and Rossello decided to sign on as a business partner. “It was full-tilt learning from the first day,” she says. “We opened the restaurant for under $60,000. I don’t even know how you do that.” Rossello and Proto were a good team, and even after they split up, they ran the pizzerias together until Proto bought out Rossello in 2008.
In 2012, Rossello launched the Comida food truck, and she’s since spun that concept into brick-and-mortar locations in Longmont and in the Source in Denver, with another outlet slated to open at the end of October in the Stanley Marketplace. We talked with her about the benefits of opening a restaurant in a communal space, the biggest challenge facing the Denver industry, and the Mexican town where she first dreamed of opening Comida.
Westword: Comida at the Source just celebrated its third anniversary, and you’re getting ready to open a third location of your restaurant at the Stanley Marketplace in Aurora. This all started from a Boulder food truck. If you knew then what you know now, would you do it the same way?
Rayme Rossello: I love the way it’s all unfolded. It was less scary to open a food truck than to sign a long lease, even though it was more expensive than the first restaurant I opened. Starting with the truck allowed me to connect in a different way with people than starting with a restaurant. And the opportunity to open that first brick-and-mortar was a dream come true. I was talking with the people who’d owned the sushi restaurant in that space, and they were talking about selling me the restaurant. I was going through some personal stuff, so I said no, but I’d met the landlord. When that couple closed, he came to me and said, “The restaurant is yours. Sign the lease, and after five years, it’ll belong to you.” That was an amazing thing. Then I had this guy who would come to the food truck, and out of the blue, he said, “Do you want an investor?” So I was able to open my restaurant. That doesn’t happen often.
From what places did you draw the inspiration for Comida?
Tulum [Mexico]. Fifteen years ago, when I started going, it was smaller, there were fewer Americans, and restaurants served food that was coastal and fresh. Lying on the beach there is where I started thinking I wanted to do Comida. My mother also lived in Mexico for years, so visiting her and going to Cuernavaca and Chiapas, I went to these little stands, where I had my first gordita. I thought, what is this? I was inspired by those memories and flavors.
Comida sometimes catches flak for being too expensive, but that seems like a sentiment that’s informed by a supposition that Mexican food should be cheap. How do you respond to that?
I have always wanted to make a really good-quality product. We started on a food truck, which I soon figured out was basically illegal. So in the beginning, there was nowhere for me to sell food — I had to go to industrial parks. If I wanted to get people to come for my food truck, where they might be standing in the cold, or in a line, the food needed to be good enough. I wanted to be fast, but also use real things that take time to make. So I’m paying someone to do all that, and product costs more. We don’t just open a can for beans; it takes four hours to make beans, and we started with that on the truck.
You’ve now opted into the Source and Stanley Marketplace, both food halls that play host to multiple concepts. Do you see a special kind of value in that type of project when it comes to growing Comida?
I like playing well in the sandbox with others. I like supporting other merchants. I look forward to doing that at the Stanley. I know there are people who enjoy that less than I do, but I liken that attitude to, you decide you want to live downtown, so you buy a condo over a restaurant and complain about the noise. You signed up for this. This is what this is. I like the creativity and energy that happens when people come together. I see it as a great opportunity, so I put my energy into it. It works for me.
Both the Stanley and the Source are often billed as revitalizing projects: The Source re-energized a huge part of Brighton Boulevard and RiNo, and the Stanley is moving into an Aurora neighborhood that’s otherwise fairly residential. What does it mean to be a business owner in neighborhoods like that?
Honestly, I wish that I had more time to be personally involved in day-to-day stuff happening in RiNo. There’s a monthly meeting for the RiNo Art District, and it really talks to what’s helping the neighborhood move along in a conscientious way without just pushing out the artists who don’t have a lot of money to pay the rents. I show up when I can, and my restaurant, my staff, is really invested in what it means to be in this neighborhood. The same is true over at the Stanley, which is starting to build community with the surrounding neighborhood, which is pretty diverse. Part of this group coming into a place like that is that they have reached out to build bridges; they don’t want it to be this thing that some people can’t come to and others can.
You’ve been fairly insistent that you don’t want Comida to be a chain. As you grow, how do you maintain the cohesiveness of the brand, and how do you differentiate new locations?
For starters, none of the Comidas look the same. They all have a similar color palette, but each one looks very different. The core menu is the same, but I’ve enjoyed having Serena Romero, my chef in Longmont — who is an Italian, San Francisco-born woman who was not trained in any way to be a chef — bring her own touch into specials. The staff and culture there is very different from the Source Comida. In order to keep things interesting for my staff, I like to keep the restaurants lively and creative. These restaurants aren’t cookie-cutter.
What’s the biggest challenge currently facing Denver’s industry?
Staffing. I was just chatting with someone who was mentioning that restaurants are closing because they can’t find new staff. I’m only as good as the people I surround myself with, so that’s the biggest challenge: finding great people that you can trust. And sometimes you find those great people, and they may not choose to be with you for the rest of their lives, which is the hardest thing. And there’s a different crowd of restaurant people these days; they’re entitled in a different way, so I think they’re missing out on really great learning.
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Some restaurateurs seem to be compensating for that by eliminating tipping and redistributing service through the front and back of the house.
Right. So the question for us is, do we raise our prices and include gratuity? I don’t think the solutions are going to come overnight. But I hope we always have people who are driven by working in kitchens, even if the kitchens are hot and crazy.
Comida Cantina is located at 721 Confidence Drive in Longmont, call 720-204-6455 ; Comida at the Source is at 3350 Brighton Boulevard, call 303-296-2747. Find information on either at eatcomida.com.