Interview with Rubio’s Co-Founder, Ralph Rubio
With the much-anticipated AZ Taco Festival invading Salt River Fields this Saturday and Sunday, we decided to check in with a competing taco teams’s company founder – Ralph Rubio of the popular taco chain, Rubio’s. Local employees will set up camp at the Fest and dish out their best tacos while representing the Rubio’s name and competing for the ultimate trophy. Be sure to stop by their booth and grab a coupon for your next visit.
Rubio’s began in 1983 when Ralph Rubio headed to Mexico on a college Spring Break trip and spotted a sign in a nearby restaurant window advertising fish tacos. After his first taste, inspiration struck to create his own taco recipe, replicating those flavors he savored in Mexico and adding his own spin using fresh ingredients. After perfecting his recipe, he started up a taco stand and the rest is history.
Today, more than 150 million fish tacos have been sold at over 200 locations. Their Original Fish Taco flaunts Wild Alaska Pollock, hand-dipped in a specially seasoned beer batter. Will it take home the ultimate prize at the upcoming Fest? Only the judges will decide its fate!
We had a moment to talk with Ralph Rubio about his early days and inspiration for his career. Read our interview below:
Amy Martin: I love that your idea to create Rubio’s was inspired on a college Spring Break trip to Mexico! Had you always had an entrepreneurial spirit?
Ralph Rubio: Yes, the story I tell is that I am the oldest of five and when I was 12 years old, my dad who was a successful executive in the plastics business was always trying to start his own business on the side. He came over from Mexico and always wanted to own his own business. He told me that if I ever got a chance own my own business I should because it was better than working for someone else. When I went to college, I knew that I was going to own my own business, I didn’t know what at that time, but I was always looking for a market opportunity. And when I discovered fish tacos, it became my inspiration to fulfill the idea of owning my own business.
Amy Martin: Before you opened your first store, you managed several other restaurants in the food industry. Any memorable experiences or tips you learned along the way that helped create your success?
Ralph Rubio: I learned a few things that stuck with me. During my time at the Old Spaghetti Factory and Hungry Hunter chains, I learned that if you could come up with a prototype for a restaurant, you could turn it into a chain. My goal was always not only just have one restaurant, but a chain. However, it was critical to develop a prototype first. Also, I was a psychology major in college so I was inherently interested in people, which carried over to my time as a waiter. It taught me to deal with the public, interact with guests and customers and the benefit of providing a high-level of service. The better server you are, the more money you make and the happier the customers are. Finally, during my time at the Harbor House, I learned invaluable lessons related to the back of the house – how to order food, how to schedule staff, how to manage labor costs, etc. It was learning those basics that set me up to open Rubio’s.
Amy Martin: When opening up your first walk-up taco stand in 1983, had you any idea that Rubio’s would become such a phenomenon?
Ralph Rubio: The first store was not a success right out of the gate, it took a few years. It was around the time of our fifth year and third store that I started to become very encouraged about our success and thought that we now had the makings of a chain restaurant.
Amy Martin: What kept you motivated as you spent time perfecting recipes and developing your business?
Ralph Rubio: I consider myself a creative type, I’ve always had a passion for the creative side of the restaurant business, it kept me and still keeps me inspired every day – from menu development to marketing. The other motivating factor is that it is my name on the building. It is my reputation at stake, it lights a fire under me knowing that you can’t hide and people will credit you one way or another – good or bad.
Amy Martin: After much success (and millions of tacos sold), do you still make the occasional fish taco at home?
Ralph Rubio: I haven’t made any fish tacos at home recently. I always head in to the nearest Rubio’s.
Amy Martin: In your opinion, what makes the perfect taco?
Ralph Rubio: The “perfect” is all about the taste, ingredients used and presentation.
Amy Martin: If you hadn’t stumbled across those tacos in Mexico and hadn’t become the mastermind behind Rubio’s, what might you be doing? Can you imagine any other profession?
Ralph Rubio: It’s hard to imagine any other profession, but I’ve always thought I could see myself as a teacher, writer or sports coach.
When walking in to any quick-service Rubio’s location, you’ll notice a salsa/condiment bar with all the taco fixin’s you’d expect and three salsas to suit your taste (I’m particularly fond of the Chipotle). The menu boasts several different taco creations from seafood (like the Pacific Mahi Mahi Taco and Salsa Verde Shrimp Taco) and meaty options like the Grilled Gourmet Taco with Steak or Rubio’s Street Tacos served with guacamole and a cilantro/onion mix.
If you have a craving for one of their signature Fish Tacos, take it up a notch and try the Fish Taco Especial with guacamole, jack and cheddar cheese, cilantro and onion.
Check out the AZ Taco Fest schedule for this weekend at aztacofestival.com.
By Amy Martin, PhoenixBites Editor in Chief