How I Made It: Co-founder of Rubio's chain got hooked on fish tacos

Rubio's, a fast-casual chain known for burritos, bowls and fish tacos, has 193 restaurants in western U.S.

The gig: Ralph Rubio, 59, is the co-founder of Rubio's, a fast-casual chain known for its burritos, bowls and beer-battered fish tacos. Anchored in Carlsbad, Rubio's locations extend up the California coast to Sacramento and outward to Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. The company has 193 restaurants and about 4,000 employees.

California dreaming: Born in New Jersey, Rubio lived on the East Coast for several years until his father, Rafael "Ray" Rubio, got a job at a plastics company. The family set off for California, first landing in Santa Monica before settling in Carson, where Rubio would graduate from high school. In 1973, he enrolled at San Diego State University as a business major, on his father's advice. "He said, 'Son, if you ever get a chance to own your own business, you should do that because there's limits in working for somebody else,'" Rubio recalled. "That really struck me, and he was my role model in that way." But his early accounting classes didn't intrigue him, and Rubio gravitated toward psychology, eventually graduating with a liberal studies degree and a Spanish minor.

Fish tacos: Rubio first tasted a fish taco in Mexico while on a spring break trip with some friends in his first year of college. He was immediately hooked. "I fell in love," Rubio said. "While we were down there, we'd eat fish tacos every day." The Mexico trip became an annual affair, and while sitting on a bar stool one night at his favorite fish taco stand, Rubio had what he called "an epiphany" — why didn't someone open a restaurant like this in San Diego? "Immediately after that, I said to myself, 'Well, maybe I could do it.'" Today, the fish taco is the bestselling item on Rubio's menu. "I would be surprised if that ever changed," he said. "As a matter of fact, we don't want that to change." The chain is on track to sell its 200 millionth fish taco this summer.

A family affair: After graduation, Rubio made a deal with his dad. If the younger Rubio got some experience in restaurant management, the elder would lend him the start-up cash to make the fish taco stand a reality. In 1983, father and son bought an old Orange Julius stand in San Diego, applied a fresh coat of paint and hung the "Rubio's Fish Tacos" sign. Rubio's parents and four siblings helped him run the business in the early days, and his brother even helped him create the fish batter recipe. "They were shareholders in the business, so they did very well when the company went public," Rubio said. "My dad in particular. That $70,000 turned out to be a nice investment for him."

Going private: In 2010, Rubio took the chain private. He sold a good number of his shares but still retains some of his ownership and is a member of the company's board of directors. Rubio also serves as "head of culinary," where he oversees menu development and is involved with marketing, real estate and restaurant design. "It was strategically and financially advantageous to go private," he said. "Since then we have invested in re-branding Rubio's with much success."

Return to the sea: The chain was known as Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill, which competed with restaurants like Baja Fresh, La Salsa and Chipotle. "We were in a very competitive space, not so unique and differentiated as we had started," Rubio said. It was time to go back to their beginnings in seafood with a new name. "We went from Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill, which featured a lot of emphasis on land proteins like chicken and steak along with seafood, to Rubio's Coastal Grill, with an emphasis on grilled seafood," Rubio said.

Restaurant remodeling: About 25 Rubio's restaurants in the San Diego area and two in Los Angeles — Monrovia and Glendale — have already been remodeled to reflect the company's new name and its beachy beginnings. Forty more locations in L.A. and Orange County are scheduled for remodeling this year. "The design and menus are resonating with people," he said. "Frequency is up with current guests, and we're attracting new guests who had not been at Rubio's before."

Passing the baton: Rubio lives in Encinitas with his wife of 26 years. He has two adult children, one of whom may follow his father into the restaurant business. Rubio gave his son the same advice his own father gave him more than 30 years ago — get management experience. He also added something new — get an MBA. "He's going to get that formal education that his dad didn't get because I realized what a competitive advantage that can be," Rubio said. "When he comes out, maybe we'll do something together. We'll partner together and open a concept he creates and develops, or he could always go and work with somebody else, or work with Rubio's."

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

Twitter: @smasunaga

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