Cafe Roka celebrates 20 years in Bisbee



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By Fred Miller

Special to the Herald/Review

Cafe Roka will begin their 20th year this New Year’s Eve. It is an amazing accomplishment for any restaurant, let alone one in a relatively isolated rural community. 

Owners Rod Kass and Sally Holcomb attribute their success and longevity to several factors; an emphasis on quality food using local ingredients when possible, friendly and attentive service, a welcoming environment, and most importantly becoming an integral part of the Bisbee community and the region. 

For a business to truly become a part of any community it means supporting the various endeavors of a broad range of community groups. Over the years Roka has donated more than $100,000 in gift certificates to aid organizational fundraising. They have provided food for many events and have hosted many fundraisers for community groups. 

One of the measures of success is local business patronage; Bisbee, Douglas, Sierra Vista constitute about 50 percent of the restaurants’ business.  However, there is substantial recognition beyond Cochise County with guests coming from Tucson (13 percent), Phoenix and Maricopa County (12 percent) and 25 percent from other states and countries. 

Cafe Roka has been favorably reviewed in national, state and regional publications including: the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Arizona Republic (several times), Washington Post, National Geographic, Seattle Times, Albuquerque Journal, Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star, Miami Herald, Arizona Highways magazine, Outdoors magazine, and the New Yorker. They have been included in more that 12 documentaries about Southern Arizona and Bisbee.

In years past, they have hosted some notable celebrities including; Johnny Depp, William Shatner, Ron Perlman, Tom Selleck, and NPR host .Scott Simon.  Several well known politicians have dined at Cafe Roka including: Homeland Security directors Tom Ridge and Janet Napolitano, U.S Senators John McClain, and John Kyle. Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly have been guests several times, as well as current District 2 Congressperson Ron Barber and his wife. 

Cafe Roka has not only survived but has beaten some very long odds against success. According to a recent National Restaurant Association study, 90 percent of independent restaurants close during their first year. Of those that make it past the first year, 70 percent close within the next three to five years. The study reiterates that restaurants are among the most difficult small businesses to operate.

For those interested in statistics, Cafe Roka has served: 352,000 dinners; 280,000 desserts; 53,000 bottles of wine; 2,200 desserts marking birthdays and anniversaries; and 325 dinners in one night

They have hosted:120 wedding receptions; 600 banquets; and eight weddings have been performed in the restaurant 

When asked about the most significant changes he has seen, Kass, also the chef, noted that over the past 20 years, the major shift in the public‘s eating preferences and habits, have driven restaurants to find new ways to prepare and serve dishes that are interesting, savory, healthy, local, and affordable. 

In some ways, his menus have reflected how innovative he has been. Combining elements of vegetarian, California and Italian cuisines, he has forged a uniquely personal style of cooking that is pleasing to the eye as well satisfying to
the palate.

All businesses depend on employees to carry out the daily work of putting a vision into practice. That the owners have created a good workplace is attested to by the low turnover for servers, cooks, and hosts; many have worked at the restaurant for more than 10 years. The bartender/beverage manager has been on the job for 19 years. 

They have also made it a point to employ high school and college students; about 200 have passed through the restaurant over the years. 

Kass and Holcomb expressed their thanks to the people of Bisbee who have supported the restaurant the past 20 years, who have chosen Cafe Roka for their special celebrations, and who have encouraged their continued exploration of being a committed community business and a vibrant part of Bisbee and Cochise County. 

“We offer a toast to all our customers,” said Kass. “We hope you will join us for many more years.”