If restaurants were measured on authenticity, Ooba Tooba would earn high marks. Self-dubbed as a “fast-casual” dining experience, this South American-inspired eating establishment has been serving residents in the 425 for over 20 years.
Husband-and-wife team Craig Johnson and Lisa Tarleton opened the restaurant’s flagship location in downtown Redmond in 1997, shortly after a nine-month escapade through South America, where they discovered some of the most refreshing, authentic dishes they’d ever tasted. Both were passionate foodies and prolific cooks at a young age, and Craig Johnson devoted his college studies and post-graduate career to learning the restaurant business and perfecting the art of quality cuisine.
“My husband and I had a dream of opening a chain of restaurants,” Tarleton said. “We didn’t want to turn 50 and wonder why we hadn’t done it.”
With the goal of introducing authentic Mexican fare to neighbors and friends, the couple paid tribute to the Brazilian beach Ubatuba, switching up the spelling for fun. They leased a corner space, filled it with whimsical memorabilia, and hired the first employees. Once open, they served made-to-order, sit-down quality dishes over the counter with no tableside service. It was an original concept that had yet to be proven, but the couple was up to the task.
“Uncertainty is a problem, and there is a lot of risk, because the restaurant industry has the second-highest failure rate after construction,” Tarleton said. “Cash flow is a big issue. You can have a wonderful concept, but if you don’t have enough cash to cover your expenses, the concept fails.”
The ownership team, including Craig’s brother Mark Johnson, who joined later, worked to grow the operation into three thriving storefronts located up and down the I-405 corridor: the Redmond headquarters, a Factoria location, and a downtown Bellevue lunch bar.
The first few years were about educating. The restaurateurs taught patrons how to appreciate the rich flavors and fresh ingredients with minimal condiments, and the community reciprocated by teaching Ooba Tooba’s owners that authentic alcohol was a natural fit for the mouth-watering food.
“In the beginning, we only offered beer and wine, and people were clamoring for margaritas,” said Tarleton. “We were reluctant at first, because we didn’t want to be known as a bar, but customers now rave about our margaritas and mojitos.”
Drinks aren’t the only thing Ooba Tooba customers rave about. The owners estimate their clientele is made up of 95 percent return customers, many of whom tell stories about the Ooba cravings that bring them back time and again. This is a key metric used to evaluate the restaurant’s success, along with its remarkable 21-year history operating as a mom-and-pop restaurant on the Eastside.
The owners also see their tenured staff as a validation of the restaurant’s friendly, authentic approach. “Twenty of our 30 existing staff members have stayed with us for over 12 years,” Tarleton said proudly. “We are a family.”