In a 1900s building on Main Street in Bisbee, Rod Kass unleashes his passion for food.
Café Roka’s long-term success demonstrates one man’s dream to thrive in a fast growing industry where failure is high and success is limited.
Enthralled by cooking since a young age, Kass remembers admiring the fast movements in diners with open kitchens, such as the Waffle House.
“It was childhood memories of going out to breakfast and going out to lunch and just being kind of enthralled with all the activity in the kitchen,” Kass said. “It looked like it would be a lot of fun.”
Kass began testing his abilities in the kitchen when he was about 10 often burning food and filling his house with smoke. When he was in his late 20s, he made the decision to leave Denver and kick-start his career in the restaurant business in Phoenix.
His first taste of the business was through an apprenticeship at the Phoenix Biltmore and later went on to work at La Champagne Room at the former Registry Resort and the Market Room of the 8700 Club.
In 1990, he decided to put his skills to the test in a small market by moving to Bisbee. Sally Holcomb, his wife, was the person who helped him get the idea of Café Roka off ground.
They had formally met while Holcomb was living in Phoenix pursuing her master’s degree and working at the Registry Resort, but lost touch for a few years before crossing paths again in Bisbee.
At the time, Holcomb’s mother owned a local restaurant called the Courtyard and was seeking someone who could serve as manager. She immediately thought of Rod and figured his creativity and talent would be a perfect match for the position.
“I reached out and asked him if he would be interested at all in coming to Bisbee for a summer, just a short time to check it out and see if he would be interested in kind of taking over my mother’s restaurant,” Holcomb said.
He worked a variety of food jobs including a bakery where he introduced sandwiches and flatbread pizzas, which helped him get to know almost everyone in town.
He first took over the kitchen at the Wine Gallery in downtown. The restaurant became widely popular in the community as people caught on to Kass’ talent in the kitchen.
Lines of people would wrap around the street corner, so he needed a solution to better accommodate his clients. Kass purchased the former Tavern Bar, remodeled the building while preserving many historical elements and reopened in 1993 as Café Roka.
Today Café Roka is open Wednesday through Saturday and specializes in modern American food with a heavy Mediterranean influence. Kass uses fresh, local ingredients while incorporating an international flair and closely following food trends from food shows in San Francisco.
“A lot of the times there’s something new coming from Spain or from Portugal or from South America,” Kass said. “So going to San Francisco gives us the opportunity to try find out where those products are and how to source them.”
The restaurant serves a four course inclusive dinner described as “casual fine dining.” Each meal is served with a soup, crisp, fresh salad, a palette cleansing lemon sorbet and an entrée.
Main entrees range from a rack of lamb with new potatoes and zinfandel sauce, lobster Ravioli in Saffron cream sauce accompanied by savory, gulf shrimp to a variety of vegetarian or vegan dishes, such as the artichoke and Portobello mushroom lasagna served with Roka red and white sauces.
Kass changes the menu items often, but continuously uses the same ingredients.
“For example, the lasagna might be different each week you come in, but it’s always vegetarian and it’s always got the same sauces,” Holcomb said. “This week it has Portobello mushrooms, next week it’s got zucchini, that kind of things.”
He also accommodates to special diets, such as gluten free, vegan, vegetarian and food allergies. As a former vegan himself, he is constantly trying to find creative ways to create tasty food alternatives.
The sprouts and greens are sourced from a local grower in Patagonia and he obtains bread from the Bisbee-based Guadalupe Baking Company. He also helps support the Arizona wine industry by featuring regional products from Cochise and Santa Cruz counties. However, because of the high volume of customers each night, he cannot solely rely on local fare.
This often entails weekly trips to Tucson or collaborating with other business owners by leveraging large orders to help other small businesses obtain resources as well.
For Kass and Holcomb, it is not about competing with other restaurants within Bisbee. Instead, they prefer to help others in the business achieve long-standing success similar to what they have built with Café Roka.
“You’d think they are our competitors, but really for the most part we all kind of recognize that we kind of need each other,” Holcomb said.
Kass’s business model has beaten the odds. According to Ildefonso Chavez, manager of the economic development program at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, 95 percent of small businesses will close before reaching their third anniversary.
Café Roka falls under a small percentage of successful businesses not only in Arizona, but also around the United States.
Fred Miller who has not only manned the bar at Café Roka for the past 21 years, but wears a variety of hats, such as helping with marketing and serving as the beverage and banquet manager, attributes the success to the owners’ continuous involvement in the restaurant.
Café Roka is recognized for helping a tremendous amount around the local community. Kass helps young individuals who are entering the job market gain hands-on experience in the restaurant business.
“We love to bring in young kids that are just entering into the job market and kind of mentor them,” Kass said. “In fact we have a student from Buena High School from Sierra Vista who is going to be interning with us for about six months.”
The restaurant donates about $67,000 a year in gift certificates to organizations. They donate food to various events and organizations, often donating leftovers from banquets to the homeless. They also help host an annual wine fundraiser for Rebuilding Together, an organization that helps rebuild homes for the low-income community.
“That’s kind of stuff that means being part of a community,” Miller said. “It doesn’t mean that you just verbally support somebody, you support them in a way that’s tangible.”
Stephanie Romero is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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