A year after debuting inside the District the owners of budding local chain Colada Shop are already scouting neighborhoods for a third shop they hope to open by the end of 2018 — with plans to add more locations the following year, co-owner Daniella Senior tells Eater.
“We just really want the perfect space — if there is such a thing,” Senior says of the next home for the Cuban-themed eatery she first introduced to area in late 2016. “We are very particular about how even the light hits the space because we want to be able to transport people.”
Senior and her partners spent the first year at the Caribbean-style café responding to intense demand that at times meant lines out the door and a slushy machine that broke down from making too many piña coladas. They’ve twice expanded their location along the bustling 14th Street corridor but there’s no more room for growth there. Besides that, the D.C. location is outperforming the hospitality group’s original restaurant in Sterling, Virginia by 20 percent.
Now that they’ve had a chance to catch their breath, Senior has started adding new items to the menu and is focusing on building up Colada Shop’s fledgling catering operation.
Eater recently caught up with Senior and chef Mario Monte to discuss expansion plans, the dilemma they face in staying true to traditional Cuban cuisine, and why Colada Shop now has a happy hour.
How has business been going for you here?
Daniella Senior: I will say that there’s definitely a seasonal component right now that I wish wasn’t as prevalent. When it gets really cold, there’s not as many people here. But honestly, business has been great and we were very, very happy and surprised, especially in the beginning with the overwhelming response and support.
Given that business is going so well, can we expect to see another Colada Shop anytime soon?
DS: We’re actually looking for more spaces in the DMV area. We would like the third one to be in D.C., but we would like to open the next location at the end of this year and a couple more next year. We’ve been looking to Shaw, West End; we’ve looked at the George Washington University area. In reality, we just want the perfect corner, so we’re open to different neighborhoods. This area, the neighborhood, has been fantastic but it’s also a very specific neighborhood mainly known for nightlife. We want to be able to be in locations that are more convenient.
What makes the Colada Shop stand out from everyone else on 14th Street?
DS: When we look at who we’re competing with, we have to look at sandwich shops, coffee shops, and cocktail bars. What makes us stand out is we provide a space where people can feel comfortable and do all those things any time of the day. You can come here and get a cocktail anytime of the day. But what I pride myself on the most is our hospitality and the fact that people come here and they’re greeted with a smile.
Why do happy hour when your cocktails are already only $8?
DS: Pretty much the whole neighborhood does happy hour and we just wanted to make sure we were offering one. D.C.’s very happy hour-centric, that’s a reality. We do think that we offer value all day, but during the week, we just wanted to make sure we were retaining our clientele, that they’ll just come and have some fun while we provide great drinks for them. All our cocktails are $6 and then $2 for our empanadas. I know. It’s dangerous.
What significant challenges did you face in the first year and how did you overcome them?
DS: The Sterling shop’s demand gradually built up but here, we opened our doors and there was like a line out the door, which is a great problem to have. So, we adapted, we expanded, we did what we had to do and now I feel like we understand the cycles of the business. When we opened, we were 500 square feet and could seat 12 inside and 16 outside. Now we are almost 800 square feet and can seat 37 inside and 16 outside. We have maxed out the space in this building and our future locations will be bigger.
What are you most proud of on the menu and why?
DS: The cortadito which is one of our coffees; It’s an espresso with sweet Cuban crema and then evaporated milk, and it’s pretty addicting. With the cocktails, it’s the daiquiri. It’s one of the simplest cocktails, but it’s really just so sublime. From the food, I really love our Cuban sandwich, there’s so much love that goes into it. The pork is marinated three days and then we cook it for eight hours super slowly. It’s fatty, tangy and creamy from the cheese.
Were there any major menu changes in your first year?
DS: We added two salads to the menu, we added four batidos — the smoothies — which is a new section for us. Initially we were going to do it since we opened, but literally we didn’t even have room for the blender. We have one with mamey, it’s a Cuban fruit that’s also in the Caribbean, and I’m excited that we put it in one of the smoothies. We added churros with chocolate to the menu. And then we actually added one more traditional Cuban sandwich — more like a Miami Cuban called Elena Ruth — which is roasted turkey with fresh cheese and strawberry jam on a sweet roll. We also changed over a few of our cocktails which we will be changing seasonally.
Mario Monte: The avocado tostada, churros, mojo-spiked Cobb salad, and the Elena Ruth sandwich are things I always thought of that I wanted to add to the menu; they’re all traditional and I still have some tricks up my sleeve that I’d like to add. For the D.C. market, people understand the Cuban sandwich and empanadas, so I wanted to add more vibrancy. I felt it was the right time because we’re using the same products, but it’s just adding something different.
What else can we expect from you in 2018?
MM: I’m working on a seasonal domino empanada and croqueta with cheese and black beans. I’m thinking about bringing back the seasonal corn sofrito and cheese empanada that people loved. With the batidos, I want to do some more traditional ones that aren’t fruit based. I’m trying to be traditional as I can, but I don’t want to shock anyone.
What was the main lesson you learned about opening a Cuban café?
DS: Certain people are very traditional. Even though our recipes are fairly traditional, we see people saying, “Well this isn’t how you do it, I’m from Key West or even different parts of Florida.” They get into very passionate conversations about how they do it where they’re from versus how they do it in Miami or making it here. But we’re using quality ingredients. For example, even our mustard blend — it’s whole grain mustard being used in our Cuban sandwiches — you’re getting a different kick. But people are used to yellow mustard. Sometimes they want it exactly how they had it when they were growing up and it’s hard to deviate, but we want to stay within traditions and also make sure that we’re giving an awesome product.
With the first year behind you, what will you tackle in your second year?
DS: We want to expand our catering and host more private events and we want to focus on coffee more. We want to host more coffee cuppings, bringing in new blends as well to give options to our customers. The catering ... started organically and we actually hadn’t really touched it that much, because we were still working on the store. One thing that is super important to us is to maintain quality and to always keep improving. The moment you stop improving is the moment your business dies.
This interview has been edited and condensed.