Ralph Rubio talks fish tacos, Pacific Beach, and his expanding business
by KAI OLIVER-KURTIN
Published - 10/20/15 - 02:36 PM | 24342 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ralph Rubio, the man responsible for popularizing the fish taco in the U.S., at the original Rubio’s Coastal Grill location in Pacific Beach, where it all began. / Photo by Kai Oliver-Kurtin
Ralph Rubio, the man responsible for popularizing the fish taco in the U.S., at the original Rubio’s Coastal Grill location in Pacific Beach, where it all began. / Photo by Kai Oliver-Kurtin
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In honor of National Seafood Month in October, we sat down with Ralph Rubio, the man responsible for popularizing the fish taco in the U.S., at the original Rubio’s Coastal Grill location in Pacific Beach, where it all began.

BBP: How did you come up with the concept for creating a restaurant focused on fish tacos?

RR: I grew up in Los Angeles and moved down here to go to SDSU. Some of the upperclassmen wanted to go down to San Felipe, Mexico for spring break to get fish tacos. I said, “Fish tacos, what are those?” I’d never been there before and never had a fish taco. We got there in the late morning, so the taco shops were just starting to open up, and I had my first fish taco and just fell in love. We had fish tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next four or five days.

Back at school, I started getting into the restaurant industry – I was busing tables at The Old Spaghetti Factory and then became a waiter. I had this love of fish tacos that translated into this idea to open a restaurant in San Diego to serve fish tacos and Coronas, because no one was doing it here, so I saw a market need. It all came together 10 years after I had my first fish taco. My dad and I became partners; he put up the financing, and I had the operations experience by then. I’d been working as a manager at Harbor House restaurant in Seaport Village, so I had some experience to start a business.

He said let’s find a restaurant, so I was looking through the Union-Tribune and found this hamburger shop for sale called Mickey’s Burgers (previously an Orange Julius store) for $70,000, which was way outside our budget. My dad said, “Well, that’s what he’s asking for, but let’s negotiate.” He told me to go across the street to the 7-Eleven, park my car there and count the number of customers going to Mickey’s, because he was claiming he had this big, booming business. I sat there for a week, and no one came into his restaurant.

So we went back to him and said, “Hey, look, you really don’t have any business,” but he still wasn’t willing to go much lower on the price. And my dad said, “Hey, call him up and offer him $15,000 cash.” And I told him there was no way he’s going to take that, but I called and made the offer. I made the call, and Mickey yelled at me and hung up the phone. My dad told me to give him a few minutes and see what happens – sure enough, Mickey called back and said he’ll take it. And that’s how we started the business, opening on Jan. 25, 1983.

The restaurant started as a walk-up taco stand with a few uncovered picnic tables outside and a changeable letterboard menu. To take orders, I had to bend forward to hear customers through the glass window. It was very much a family business – my mom and dad would help out during busy times – and we only had one paid employee, so my brothers and sister were very involved.

BBP: Why did you choose Pacific Beach for your first location?

RR: There’s a big PB connection for me starting in the late 1970s, when I lived near Fanuel Street and Pacific Beach Drive. I started out in South Mission Beach and worked my way up to PB. Pacific Beach is a very exciting, dynamic place. I just love that we have our roots here; it’s always meant a lot to me since I was a resident [Rubio now lives in Encinitas].

Half of my family still lives here, so I’ll always have a connection here. And this restaurant will always be a landmark in PB. This is the only store that has a marquee outside that’s grandfathered in, so we can change the message every month or so. I usually email the team and they get up on the ladder to change it.

We chose PB for the first restaurant since our target audience was college students who had heard of a fish taco before. So after the PB location came the SDSU location; that also fit those criteria. Since the original location was so busy, we opened the next one on Grand Avenue closer to the beach. And now we have almost 50 restaurants in San Diego County.

The original fish taco is still the best-selling item on the menu, and we just sold our 200 millionth fish taco this past summer. The plan was always for Rubio’s to be a chain restaurant – I knew if I could develop a prototype that was scalable then I could have a bigger business. I thought if I could have 10 or 15 restaurants, that would be great. Today, we have close to 200 stores and more than 4,000 employees.

BBP: How did you come up with recipes for your earliest menus?

RR: Both my parents are from Mexico, so I grew up around a lot of delicious Mexican food. I was very focused on the fish taco and had written down the ingredients for beer batter when I was in San Felipe – which are flour, water, beer, oregano and mustard – but I didn’t know the proportions. I carried that list around in my wallet for years.

So when I started the restaurant, my brother and I sat in the kitchen for a couple weeks and tried different recipes until we got the beer batter just right. Then we experimented with several different types of fish — we started with red snapper, then shark — but ultimately settled on Alaskan pollock about a year into it and have been with it ever since.

BBP: What is your role in the company these days?

RR: My primary work is around culinary now to develop new products and improve existing products. I also spend a lot of time in the field, visiting restaurants and making sure the food is being executed properly. I go in the kitchen and meet team members, shake hands and get to know people. It’s important to stay connected to the team, because you can’t run a restaurant from behind a desk. I’m also involved with marketing, public relations and real estate selection, and I sit on the board of directors.

BBP: After more than 32 years, how do you stay inspired and keep the momentum going?

RR: When your name is on anything, that’s an inspiration, I think – you have your reputation to protect. My son wants to get into the business – he’s in business school right now – so maybe down the road we’ll start a new concept together. Or if he wants to get involved with Rubio’s, I’m more likely to stick around for a long time. But for now, it’s all about Rubio’s, and I think there’s still a lot of potential. Rubio’s will continue to expand. If you’re in this ever-changing marketplace, you can’t sit still — we’re always growing, moving ahead and trying something new and different.

Rubio’s Coastal Grill is headquartered in Carlsbad. Visit the original Rubio’s location at 4504 East Mission Bay Drive or the third location at 910 Grand Ave. For more information, visit rubios.com.

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