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Cocina Azul opens second location

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Frank Barela, owner of Cocina Azul restaurants, photographed on Monday December 7, 2015. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s a space that has chewed up several restaurants in the past, but that didn’t deter Frank Barela.

The veteran Albuquerque businessman thinks he has what it takes to thrive at the turnover-prone building at 4243 Montgomery NE: chile.

Barela last month opened a second location of Cocina Azul, the New Mexican cafe he launched six years ago on Mountain Road. Given the popularity of that initial site — which he said generates about $1.5 million in annual revenue — Barela likes his chances at a spot that has seen at least five other restaurants come and go, including IHOP, Cafe Bodega, Gruet Grille, Cast Iron Cafe, and most recently, Amici.

“I’m pretty confident in my product,” Barela said from inside the freshly remodeled, 120-seat eatery at Montgomery and Jefferson. “I think (in) six years we’ve built a brand, Cocina Azul, that people tend to know.”

The new location will feature the same food that catapulted the original Cocina Azul to popularity, food that Barela said is “all about the chile.” The Montgomery venue differs mostly in that it also features a bar with 16 taps pouring a mix of local and national brand brews.

Friends have questioned Barela’s decision to choose a building with such a turbulent past. He acknowledges the risk but said he was attracted by its location along a major street, its parking and the nearby concentration of offices and residences.

“I don’t understand why this place has failed so many times,” Barela said. “I just don’t understand.”

Mike Barker of Western States Retail & Investment, the commercial real estate broker who represented Cocina Azul, said the location is particularly promising now given the recent momentum seen in the San Mateo/Montgomery trade area. Starbucks, Chick-fil-A and Rock & Brews have all planted roots there in the past few years.

But Barker noted that Cocina Azul’s fate will likely have as much to do with its customers, who have already made the Mountain site something of a destination restaurant.

“They have power to create a draw,” he said.

Barela is familiar with daunting challenges. He and wife Evelyn created Cocina Azul after his home-building business crumbled during the recession, prompting him to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

“I didn’t know if I was going to go to try sell cars, put on an orange vest and go work at Home Depot or open a restaurant,” said Barela. “I opened a restaurant.”

Cocina Azul surged in popularity and is consistently busy, though its previous growth attempts haven’t worked. A West Side location fizzled, while a fast casual, off-shoot brand, Azul Burrito Co., lasted only a matter of months in Downtown. Barela cites location as a factor in each of those failures, but doesn’t worry about this new one — despite its history.

“It’s begging for success, and we think we can fill that bill,” he said.

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