One of Fondren’s favorite restaurants, Babalu Tapas & Tacos, just passed their eight-year mark.
With growth comes change – and challenge.
The restaurant, founded in Fondren in 2010 by Bill Latham and Al Roberts, has grown exponentially over their near-decade run with eight locations across the southeast (and more in the works).
At the core, says Director of Operations Jud Heubach and new General Manager Amanda Spradley, is Babalu’s “Making Guests Happy” philosophy.
We talked to Heubach and Spradley to learn how they are addressing the challenges they have faced and their thoughts heading into 2019.
What would you say Babalu is? What do you want it to be known for?
Spradley: Babalu is the same place today as it was when we opened. Some of the menu items are different, some of the faces are different, but the focus and philosophy of making guests happy is a constant mantra. I want us to be known for our culture of being better and different. From our tableside hospitality to the phenomenal food, Babalu is one-of-a-kind.
The challenges of growing not just a restaurant but a brand, can you speak to those?
Heubach: As Babalu has grown, we have found that each market has its own personality.
Some of this evolution of our brand and our menu has been a huge success and others have been a challenge to our teams and guests. As our guests give us their feedback, we adjust to improve our offerings.
Take our tacos, for example, we went through a few iterations of different tacos this year. After seeking our guests’ feedback, we have eventually landed on some of the best tacos we have ever had.
What about the things that have been changed or “tweaked” to ensure continuity across the Babalu brand?
Spradley: We will always and forever be the mothership Babalu. No “tweak” will ever change that. We are as committed to maintaining our culture today as we were when Babalu was a mere thought in our founders’ mind.
Especially in Fondren, we want to offer what our guests want, hence the reemergence of Margarita Monday, black-eyed-pea hummus, and tuna, to name a few. We want to bring fresh and new dishes to our guests while still offering those pillars of our menu. Just because the menu may not state whether we offer one dish or drink, if the products are in the restaurant, we will do what we have to do to make that request happen.
We’re all afraid of change. What do you say to that customer has seen changes at Babalu (loss of favorite menu items, changes in policy or practice) and how are you addressing those today? “Where’s my duck taco? Where’s my $5 Baba-Rita™ on Monday?”
Spradley: Menus do change periodically throughout the year. I like to say of some items, “It’s not goodbye, but see you soon.” That said, one person’s favorite could be the last thing someone else may order: that is the glory of Babalu. We are diverse. As a restaurant, and a brand, we offer a menu that can accommodate so many different tastes and dietary restrictions. I hear all of the time how great of an asset that is.
Heubach: We generally have a couple of menu changes a year. Obviously, we did quite a few more this year in an effort to have a more focused menu. One thing that I feel is a win, is that we started a program to be creative as well as a way to bring back a few favorites from each market. We now have a ‘Taco of the Month’ and a ‘Burger of the Month’ to offer guest favorites and try new items. This gives us the ability to add a little variety throughout the year.
Margarita Monday is another great example of us listening to the feedback of our guests. When we extended Margarita Monday to all Babalu locations, we decided to focus it on one drink. In most markets, this came off positively since they had never had this particular promotion. Obviously, in a well-established market such as Fondren, this was a step backward.
After hearing from our guests that they were disappointed in the changes, we quickly added more options to bring the total to five. So now, in all the stores, we have five different margaritas for $5 on Monday. I don’t want to get too far ahead of this, but for the Baba-Rita™ lovers out there, we are currently working on a pomegranate option for this promotion as well.
Staffing has been a learning experience in recent months for Babalu Fondren, hasn’t it?
Heubach: I know it’s cliché to say, but we are in the people business. You can have the best product or service in the world, yet the quality delivered to the guest is driven by the people we have making or serving the products. Any changes to the team and leadership will create new challenges in training and approach.
We have lost a couple of long-time senior managers recently to other restaurant groups, and with those changes, we had some team members follow. This has certainly presented a challenge in an already tight service industry labor market. Thankfully, we had a core group of leaders on our team to fill some of these vacancies as well as a couple of great newcomers to our leadership team. This leads me to Amanda. Amanda started as a server with us a while back and quickly grew through the ranks in Fondren. She is a strong leader with a tremendous amount of resolve and integrity.
Spradley: I have been offered an excellent opportunity, with an excellent brand, to showcase my strong suits. The philosophy of Babalu is also a personal one of mine. I have been in the restaurant industry for almost 15 years now. Throughout that time, I have worked at a number of restaurants and none of those could hold a candle to what Babalu embodies. We are truly focused on our guests and their experiences being positive ones. That is one of the main reasons I am so excited to accept the passing of this torch. When I accepted this position, I knew some of the challenges that lay before me and staffing was a monstrous one. Now that I have had the opportunity to bring in new team members and rebuild our staff, we are focusing on attention to detail. We again have a staff that enjoys making guests happy and working together for a common goal. Babalu is all about energy, and you can once again feel that positive energy when you walk through the doors.
What do you want customers – past and future – to know about the Babalu experience?
Spradley: Babalu is a place we want everyone to feel invested in. And investment is more than monetary. Investments are emotional as well. We want to know how your visit was and what you enjoyed. We want to celebrate those momentous and special occasions together. Whether that be your birthday or ours, Babalu is space for everyone to come together for any reason. We want Babalu to be your go-to spot.
Heubach: Through the brand evolution over the last year, we have not lost our purpose. We are here to make our guests happy. This is coming from someone who has worked for Bill and Al for nearly 17 years. I like to think we are finally through a team restructure in Fondren, and we are starting to gain the momentum that originally propelled Fondren to be the juggernaut that it has been throughout the years.