For Many Businesses, North County Is Now the Place to Be

North County is hardly the Klondike, but a gold rush of sorts is on nonetheless. Leading the stampede are San Diego-based businesses eager to stake a claim in a burgeoning market for goods and services.

Among the enterprises that have recently opened or expanded their North County operations are San Diego’s largest law firm, a major hospital and a trendy Mexican restaurant chain. While they serve different markets, all say the prospects are good in the fast-growing communities of North County.

Gray Cary Ames & Frye, the largest law firm in San Diego, opened an office in the Escondido National Bank Building on April 2. The same building has housed the North County branch of San Diego’s third-largest law firm, Higgs Fletcher & Mack, since 1972. The two firms had similar reasons for opening their North County offices, which are just down the hall from each other.

“For a long time we’ve seen the desirability of North County,” said Karl Zobell, of Gray Cary Ames & Frye. “Some of our clients are up there, and we’ve spent a lot of time on the freeway going to North County.”


Staffed by five attorneys, the new office also gives the firm greater proximity to new clients, and to a growing courthouse which will be located in either Vista or Escondido, said Zobell. The new office also allows several of the firm’s lawyers who already live in North County to now work in the community too.

Higgs Fletcher & Mack started its North County branch with two attorneys, now has seven, and will probably add three more soon, said J. Tim Konold, an attorney with the firm. Now well-positioned to meet the growing demand for legal services in North County, Higgs Fletcher & Mack has tried from the beginning to avoid the appearance of carpet-bagging, he said.

“We really went up there first just to serve our existing clients better, rather than charge them for driving up there and back,” said Konold. “We have learned that there are a lot of potential clients up there.”

There are even more potential patients. La Jolla-based Scripps Memorial Hospitals opened its Encinitas facility in 1978, and nearly doubled the number of beds there with a $17 million expansion completed in January, said Michael Dabney of Scripps Memorial. The expansion makes Scripps Memorial-Encinitas the first major rehabilitation facility in coastal North County, he said.

Officials at Scripps Memorial are also planning to build a new hospital on 32 acres of land near San Marcos Boulevard, he said. Scripps Memorial has entered escrow on the property, and is now in negotiations with the city of San Marcos. In the planning stages for at least three years, the hospital was originally going to be built in Carlsbad. Numerous delays by the city of Carlsbad led Scripps Memorial to abandon that site, said Dabney.

Scripps Memorial Hospitals is also building a 57,000-square-foot, three-story office complex in North City West. The $11.3 million building, now more than half finished, will provide office space for 60 Scripps Memorial physicians when it is completed, said Dabney.

Demographic studies preceded the expansion in Encinitas, the construction of the office building, and the decision to build a new hospital in San Marcos. The figures pointed to an inevitable increase in the demand for medical services.

“We don’t just jump into things capriciously,” said Dabney. “The population up there is just going to grow very significantly in the next decade.”

Fish taco magnate Ralph Rubio also did his homework before testing the North County market. He knew that his two Rubio’s Restaurants in Pacific Beach enjoyed a loyal following among surfers and other beach-goers who appreciated his authentic Mexican street-cart recipe for fish tacos. He also saw the tremendous residential growth occurring in inland North County. He wondered, would the fish taco play in San Marcos?

Betting on a steady flow of traffic to and from the nearby Price Club, Rubio’s opened a 1,400-square-foot restaurant in the food court at the Vallecitos Shopping Center in San Marcos. That was in the summer of 1988.

“It was kind of an experience,” said Rubio. “Things did not go well at the start.”

The shopping center was just too new, said Rubio. Business has picked up dramatically, however. Well enough, at least, for him to open another Rubio’s Restaurant in Encinitas in 1989. The 3,200-square-foot Encinitas restaurant, formerly an Arby’s, was a success from the start, said Rubio. His North County ventures have taught him that opening a restaurant in a new location sometimes requires a survivor’s attitude: “You have to bite the bullet.”

On the other hand, the instant acceptance of the Encinitas Rubio’s has proven a pet theory about business at the beach. Rubio thinks that people along the coastal strip from Point Loma to Oceanside have similar buying habits--at least when it comes to fish tacos. Moreover, surfers and other people who buy fish tacos in Pacific Beach are likely to do so in Encinitas.

“Beach traffic tends to cross,” he said. “We always felt that we had a built-in customer base in coastal North County, and that has proved itself true.”

Rubio now sees the potential for three or four more Rubio’s Restaurants in North County.

“Carlsbad or Oceanside is a definite possibility in the next year or two, and we want to do something in Del Mar,” he said. North City West, where retail growth has yet to catch up with the new residential base, could be a good location. Yet another potential site is on Carmel Mountain Road, where Ralph’s Grocery Co. and McDonalds have both opened stores.

At least one San Diego business has decided to move its entire operation to North County, lock, stock and barrel. The Fornaca Family Bakery last month announced plans to move from its National Avenue plant to a new location near Interstate 15 and Highway 78 in Escondido. Plans call for a 100,000-square-foot facility on 6.8 acres of land.