In 1992, when owners Rod Kass and Sally Holcomb first opened the doors of Café Roka on Bisbee’s Main Street, the town was just beginning to recover from the loss of the mining industry that nearly drove it to extinction.
Holcomb, a fifth-generation Bisbeean, was in high school when the copper mines closed in the ’70s. “It was a sad and turbulent time,” she says. Almost everyone in the town was involved either directly or peripherally with the mines. “A lot of people left. Houses and buildings were abandoned. There was talk at one point about Bisbee being listed as a ghost town.”
She spent most of the ’80s away, too, eventually ending up in Phoenix for graduate school. To support herself she took a job at the Registry Resort in Scottsdale. (“It doesn’t exist anymore,” she says. Clearly not everything in this tale is timeless.)
Rod Kass grew up in Denver—restaurants had intrigued him since he was a kid. “I loved going to diners with open kitchens, like a Waffle House, and watching how they worked.” His first job was at McDonald’s. In his 20s, Kass got more serious about food and considered going to culinary school, but his options were limited. “At the time if you wanted to go to school you had to go to New York or San Francisco—”
“—or Europe,” Holcomb says. They’re one of those couples that complete many of each other’s sentences.
Back to Kass: “So I took the old path and did an apprenticeship program at a resort.” At the Registry Resort, that is, where he met Holcomb. They were friendly, but not close. By the late ’80s, Kass and his brother, who worked a corporate job in Phoenix, were considering a move to San Diego, since they both wanted to be close to the water.
One day, he got a call from a friend of his named Rosita, asking if he would be interested in spending a summer in Bisbee.
Holcomb had since quit her job at the resort and returned home to work on a project to revitalize downtown Bisbee. One day, her mom, who owned a local restaurant called the Courtyard—which has since closed—asked her if she knew anyone who’d be a good manager.
“And Rod’s name come up,” she says. “I knew he was really talented and very creative. So I put the feelers out—what had happened to Rod? A mutual friend put us back in touch.”
Not long after her call, Kass arrived in Bisbee.
“It was kind of a summer adventure for me to come down here,” he says.
But he ended up liking Bisbee—a lot. He lived in an apartment in the Pythian Castle, one of the town’s iconic old buildings. “It felt like you were in the middle of old New York or old San Francisco—going 75 years back in time,” he says.
Kass worked at the Courtyard only for a few months, but other developments convinced him to stay in Bisbee. “Sally and I weren’t together when I came here. But during that summer it evolved into more than just a friendship,” he says. “We became a couple. And at that time I decided to stay but I had to figure out how to make a living.”
So he took a job doing food service at the local prison. “Really it didn’t have much to do with food—I was just a glorified guard in the kitchen. The inmates actually did the cooking,” he says. “They had four spices to work with and were always trying to get me to smuggle more in for them.”
While it wasn’t the highlight of his culinary career, Kass managed to share some of his expertise with the inmates. “I hated seeing food go to waste so I said, ‘We have this left over—let’s combine it with this over here and we can make it into a salad.’ The inmates in the kitchen were doing things they hadn’t done in the past, and the general population appreciated these different combinations of flavors.”
The story goes that they appreciated it so much that when Kass left the prison after a few months, the inmates protested his departure with a hunger strike. “I think it only lasted a day,” Kass says, smiling.
He worked a few other jobs, including in a bakery where he introduced sandwiches and flatbread pizzas to the menu. He’d deliver his food around Bisbee and got to know almost everyone in town.
Eventually he took over the tiny kitchen at the Wine Gallery in downtown. The restaurant only had 20 tables, but after Kass started cooking there, it became wildly popular. “People kept coming and coming. We didn’t take reservations and so lines would wrap around the corner of the street,” says Holcomb, who worked as a hostess.
“We really realized that people wanted what we were doing.”
Back in those days Kass would buy cooking wine from the nearby Tavern Bar. He became close with the owner, a guy called Eddie, whom Kass describes as one of the sweetest people he’s ever met. The Tavern Bar was a Bisbee institution. “It was kind of along the lines of St. Elmo’s,” he says. “It was a working man’s bar where you could get a beer and a shot for a buck.”
During one of their visits at the bar, Kass mentioned to Eddie that he wanted to buy a building where he could finally start a restaurant of his own.
“And he said, ‘I’ve been trying to sell the bar for a long time.’ He had a lot of folks approach him. But he’d seen so many people come in and buy properties and sell them for a big profit, then leave. He wanted to make sure that whoever got the bar and the building was truly committed to the community.”
Eddie didn’t have to look much further. “Our business model has always been community first,” says Holcomb, who serves on a number of boards around town.
After the sale closed, they gutted the building while saving as many of the historic elements as possible. And in January 1993, the Tavern Bar reopened—as Café Roka.
Today Café Roka is much the same as it was back then. Diners are served four courses: a soup, a salad, and a palate-cleansing sorbet before their main. Kass, who was a vegan for many years, strives not just for taste but also for quality. He wants his meals to nourish.
“We were doing slow food before there was even a name for it,” Holcomb says.
“Our philosophy hasn’t changed, but the culinary culture has caught up to us,” Kass continues.
They source as much of their food from nearby as they can. The sprouts and, when available, greens come from a grower in Patagonia named Michael; Margaret, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, supplies their olives. They feature bread from the Bisbee-based Guadalupe Baking Company whenever Juliette Beaumont, the owner, can send enough over.
Kass is a nimble chef and tweaks his menu based on what’s available. “We really want to support the local farming that’s going on here,” he says. But with Café Roka’s volume—it’s packed nearly every night—they can’t depend solely on local sourcing.
Regardless of what ingredients Kass and his team have at their disposal, the menu at Café Roka always shines. Most mains come covered with rich sauces that have simmered through the day, like lobster Ravioli tossed in a saffron cream sauce and crowned with shrimp, or crispy white corn and pine nut risotto cakes accompanied by roasted veggies and a red curry and coconut sauce.
Some items on the menu never change, no matter what season it is; they’ve served the artichoke and portobello mushroom lasagna, for example, since the early days.
The couple beams when they talk about their local wine list. They have featured Arizona wines since the fledgling days of the local industry. But now they have a dedicated Arizona list. “We’re specifically focusing on grapes that were grown in Santa Cruz and Cochise Counties,” Kass says. “There are a couple of exceptions but usually there’s a story behind those.”
There’s also a story behind Café Roka’s staff. Fred Miller has been manning the bar, a large island in the middle of the ground floor, for 21 years. He’s also a co-owner of the Copper City Inn. Raul Berrios, who works in the kitchen, started coming to Roka as a customer. He liked it so much he joined the staff—19 years ago. Gretchen Baer, a server who also works as an artist, is another long-term staff member. There are others too.
“Everyone who works here does something else in their other lives,” says Holcomb.
“It provides a different outlet. A social outlet. It’s a family,” says Kass.
People depend on Kass and Holcomb: their staff, the Bisbee community, and their customers who come from around the corner and across the state. But it’s clear that the dependence is mutual. The couple has built their lives around moving Bisbee into the future—and making sure that it tastes good at the same time. ✜
Café Roka. 35 Main St., Bisbee. 520.432.5153. CafeRoka.com.
Vanessa Barchfield is a reporter and producer at Arizona Public Media.