Guests dining at Bulla Gastrobar, located in the Coral Gables and Doral communities of Miami, as well as Winter Park, Florida, usually have no idea that they’re frequenting a rapidly expanding chain of restaurants that will see three more sites open in Tampa, Atlanta, and Texas in the second quarter of 2017, and a fourth shortly afterward in Charlotte, North Carolina. Since the first location opened in 2013, the tapas-style eatery has eschewed the cog-in-the-wheel mindset to which many chains fall prey. Instead, Bulla (pronounced boo-ya) maintains a style that very clearly says “independent restaurant.”
This is a perception that Carlos Centurion and Juan Carlos Marchan, Centurion Restaurant Group’s president/founder and chief operating officer, respectively, have taken great pains to nurture. Their intentions have always been to build what Marchan calls “multi-unit” restaurant concepts. The company also launched Peruvian concept Pisco y Nazca Ceviche Gastrobar with two locations in the greater Miami area and a third expected to open in Washington, D.C., late this year. Despite such dynamic growth, the company’s philosophy has been to avoid a cookie-cutter approach. “Our underlying strategy has always been to create restaurants with unique personalities, tailored to the market they serve,” Marchan says.
Bulla has performed extensive research on its communities of choice, including information on those patrons’ specific culinary preferences. For instance, Coral Gables caters to a high-end, long-established dining clientele, largely of Cuban and European descent. Prior to Bulla, Carlos Centurion opened an upscale Spanish restaurant called Por Fin before recognizing the opportunity for a more casual tapas eatery in the area. Thus the small, shareable plates are rooted in traditional fare, and the main courses include typical Spanish weekend indulgences like paella and suckling pig.
Alternatively, Doral is a widely pan-Latin community that’s not only newly developed but also leaning younger. The plates at that location add on to the base menu with items such as the Cubano Ibérico, a gussied-up fusion version of a Cuban sandwich made with Bellota ham, Tetilla cheese, and mustard aioli. Winter Park is a snowbird and tourist locale, with visitors from all over the world; offerings are geared toward being both intensely Spanish and accessibly universal at the same time.
To that end, each restaurant has an independent executive chef, a partner chef, and a sous chef, or combination thereof, to carry out menu duties. For Bulla Doral, which opened in spring 2016, the company tapped an El Bulli and José Andrés alum, Miguel Rebolledo, to work with Bulla Coral Gables’ head chef Diego Solano. Through this collaboration, Rebolledo infused the menu with personal touches from his coastal Spain upbringing and Spanish-Moorish heritage. He also brought with him novel methods learned in some of Spain’s and the U.S.’s most exciting kitchens. In addition to techniques like sous vide and spherification (turning liquids into spheres), the kitchen also employs a highly coveted, Spanish-brand Josper oven: The combination charcoal grill and barbecue oven quickly cooks at very high temperatures and infuses foods with a unique flavor and juicy texture.
For the most part, the menu variations among the locations are not overt. Classics such as gazpacho Andaluz, tortilla Español, and croquetas de jamón remain at every location. Imported cured meats and Spanish cheeses are also staples, as are desserts such as flan de coco (coconut flan) and torrija (caramelized brioche similar to French toast). Bulla has no central commissary and does not source packaged products. “We pride ourselves on our made-from-scratch dishes. Our chefs make all of our food in-house, fresh, on a daily basis. Providing this at our price point has been a challenge, but it has brought us a huge competitive advantage,” Marchan says.
Centurion and Marchan follow the same approach with design as they do with the menu. Created by Celano Design Studio, each Bulla location echoes the cervezerias (beer halls) of Barcelona in which the bar serves as a focal point in the restaurant layout. The main dining rooms reflect the atmosphere of a Barcelona marketplace, with a lively vibe created by 5,500 square feet of indoor-outdoor seating and pairings of light and dark woods accented by cobalt leather. But the core concept also allows for individual design features, allowing every Bulla to both blend and stand out within its community.
“We don’t believe in location, location, location. We believe in context, context, context,” Marchan says. “Our restaurants have to fit within the communities they serve. There has to be a legitimate demand for our approach in restaurant development from the locals in the area, and the design has to integrate well with the surroundings.”
Likewise, the beverage menu is tailored to suit the tastes of regional drinkers, with craft beers from nearby breweries popping up to complement the mixologist’s cocktail creations, sangria, and a well-chosen, mostly Spanish, wine list.
As new Bulla and Pisco y Nazca locations bring the tapas and ceviche trends to other states in 2017, Bulla, Centurion, and Marchan (along with Pisco’s Chef Partner Ryan Smith and Executive Chef Miguel Fernandez, formerly of the acclaimed Gastón Acurio’s La Mar) intend to follow the same methods that have suited them well so far. After scouting and building, the chefs will do focus-group tastings, listening keenly to feedback.
“This helps us craft our menu specific to each market and the guests’ needs,” Marchan says. Still, they do not relax vigilance after debut. “We do weekly samples of our food with our guests as they come in for lunch and dinner. We take note of their comments and reactions in order to change, maintain, or improve recipes within our bars and kitchens.”
This flexibility in both menu and design has paid off: Growth has been fast, with the restaurants averaging about $1,000 per square foot in profit in the first year. Customer responses have also been gratifying. “Our guests walk into our properties and see our restaurants as their home away from home,” Marchan says. “They show love for our food and have raved about our specialty cocktails, beer, and wine selections. We will definitely stay true to our strategy.”