|Laney DeJonge and Clark Lopez|
When Laney DeJonge and Clark Lopez opened Rojo 12 years ago, they decided to name their restaurant after the Spanish word for red not simply because they planned to offer Latin-inspired food.
“Red is a color of love and passion,” DeJonge said. “That’s what we feel about this place and we wanted others to feel that too.”
Certainly, they seem to have succeeded. Rojo is a wildly popular bar and grill located on Highland Avenue in Birmingham and is one of the local establishments participating in Birmingham Restaurant Week 2014.
This past weekend I enjoyed dinner at Rojo and had a chat with DeJonge and Lopez.
Because the restaurant industry is still a male-dominated one, I asked DeJonge about her experiences as a female restaurant owner.
“When I first started, I was more timid,” DeJonge said. “Telling people what to do -- that was hard for me at first.” But DeJonge said she actually had never had any negative experiences because of her gender.
“I feel like it was my own fears of telling people what to do, but now I’m not intimidated,” she said. "Plus, my business partner has always treated me as an equal. We do everything together.”
What makes Rojo stand out from other restaurants?
“We’re not just another Mexican restaurant,” Lopez said. Rojo offers both Latin and American dishes and a variety of options. So whether you’re in the mood for a burger or a burrito, Rojo has you covered. On the menu you’ll find wings and quesadillas, Philly cheese steaks and fajitas. Rojo offers vegetarian and gluten free options too.
During my recent trip to Rojo I started the Kip’s queso – white cheese dip with chorizo and jalapenos. For my main course I had the shrimp tacos. The folks in the kitchen were quite generous with the shrimp, which made for a filling meal, but I still made room for dessert. The chocolate pie is like a thick, soft, and chewy cookie and is now one of my favorite things on the menu.
Beyond building a great menu, DeJonge and Lopez are striving to build a sense of community too.
“We’re a neighborhood bar and grill,” Lopez said. “We’re here for the 8,000 people within walking distance of our restaurant.”
Stroll by Rojo on a nice day and you’ll see dozens of people enjoying good food and good conversation on the restaurant’s patio.
What have you learned about Birmingham from being in the restaurant business?
“People who live in this part of the city really love Birmingham or they wouldn’t be here. They like to be around each other,” DeJonge said. "And so many things are happening. I feel like Birmingham used to take one step forward and two steps back, but now it really feels like we’re taking steps forward and we’re continuing to go forward. There’s a lot of enthusiasm. It’s infectious and I love it.”
And Rojo is striving to be part of that growth by partnering with local groups and programs such as Sidewalk Film Festival and Hand In Paw and by hosting fundraisers for local charities and art shows.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
“Be patient,” Lopez said.
“You can’t expect it to just immediately be successful,” she said. “You have to build it up and that takes time. “
And time has been good to Rojo.