A Birmingham-Southern Graduate's Bob-Dylan-Approved Restaurant
If you live in Birmingham, AL, then you know it doesn't take long until you hear about Rojo. In 2017, both AL.com and Birmingham Magazine listed Rojo as one of the few restaurants that showcase the "Best of Birmingham." Co-owned by Birmingham-Southern (BSC) graduate Laney DeJonge and her business partner Clark Lopez, this Latin and American restaurant is a staple of the Magic City.
Rojo opened in 2002 and is located in the Highlands neighborhood downtown. The restaurant offers two menus: one for Latin classics such as steak fajitas and paellas and another for comfort foods that range from corn dogs and burgers to Philly cheesesteaks. While Rojo is a Birmingham staple, not all regulars are city natives.
Once, Bob Dylan ate at Rojo. He was in disguise at the time and did not reveal this until he mentioned Rojo on his radio show seven to eight years later. In his deep, iconic voice, Dylan says, "If you're down in Birmingham, Alabama stop by at Rojo. It's Spanish for red."
Other well-known names have also stopped by at the restaurant, including David Sedaris and Tony Hale. But when Rojo first opened, DeJonge and Lopez did not even own beer coolers.
"We put everything on ice," recalls DeJonge. "We would have coolers that we would roll out like baskets of beer and nobody knew because it was behind the counter."
Yet this was just the beginning of DeJonge's life-long dream. Even at a young age, DeJonge would "pretend to serve pizza, whiskey, and beer." Before opening Rojo, DeJonge lived only a couple blocks away from the old Highland market. She loved walking around the Highland Park neighborhood because it reminded her of Europe and San Francisco.
"When I was at BSC, I would drive around Highland Park and dream about living in this neighborhood," says DeJonge. "I wanted a neighborhood restaurant, and I wanted people to come to my restaurant more than once a week."
While attending graduate school at the University of Alabama, DeJonge worked at a number of restaurants which include the date-night favorite Olive Garden. But in 2002, DeJonge's dreams came true. She and her business partner Clark Lopez bought the former space of Highland Market.
"We were really lucky," DeJonge says. "We bought a turnkey operation; there was already a kitchen in pace. That was a lifesaver, and we were able to save a lot of money and rent on a building."
Much of DeJonge's economic know-how came from her degree at Birmingham-Southern College. At BSC, DeJonge majored in accounting and minored in English. She remembers when she attended a lecture during her freshman year about a liberal arts degree. It was at that lecture that she realized the degree's importance to society.
"Having a foundation of the liberal arts is so important, " says DeJonge. "I feel like every single human being should have one." DeJone fondly remembers famous BSC English Professor Dr. McInturff "sitting on the edge of his desk talking about Shakespeare." Despite DeJonge's love for English, she knew even in her college days that her true calling was to own a business.
"I get pleasure from people enjoying themselves," says DeJonge. Fittingly, her restaurant is vivid, with bright red walls filled with quirky skull decorations. Colorful lights, wooden chairs and eclectic furniture scream, "Go to Rojo!" to the onlookers outside.
If DeJone could suggest one thing to future business owners, it is that they "lower overhead fees as much as possible because it allows you the freedom to not make a lot of money when you first start out."
If you are tired of a boring menu, stop by Rojo and support BSC alum, Laney DeLonge. Located at 2921 Highland Avenue South, Rojo is open Tuesdays-Sundays at 11 am-10 pm. It also serves brunch on Saturday and Sundays from 11 am to 3 pm.