How I Made It: He yearned for the taste of home. Now Vicente Del Rio is bringing high-end Mexican cuisine to the masses
Vicente Del Rio, 47, is founder and chief executive of Frimex Hospitality Group, which operates eight Mexican eateries, with a ninth on the way. The first Frida Mexican Cuisine launched in Beverly Hills in 2002. There are three other Frida full-service restaurants; another location will open soon in Sherman Oaks. The restaurant company also operates the more casual Frida Tacos in Pasadena, Brentwood and West L.A. A third brand, Taco Libre in Santa Monica, is “quick and affordable,” Del Rio said. Frimex employs about 300 people and has $20 million in annual sales.
The accounting graduate from the Universidad Iberoamericana was working at Arthur Andersen when he was transferred to the Los Angeles office in 1998. The Mexico City native dreamed of eating his way through town, in a way that would make it feel like home, but every restaurant came up short. “When you can’t find the food you grew up with, you have the feeling that you’re missing a big part of your life,” Del Rio said.
A good mole
Among the things he found lacking was one of his favorites, mole poblano, a complex sauce that can include as many as 20 ingredients, including chocolate. “It’s very traditional, a rich sauce served with chicken, rice and beans and handmade tortillas.” The Los Angeles version just wasn’t the same as the one he remembered. “I didn't try to invent anything,” Del Rio said. “I was just creating the same dishes you would find in a good restaurant in Mexico City.”
A cuisine dream
Del Rio ran a small taqueria while he was a student, and he found cooking role models in his mother and grandmother. After the 2001 terror attacks, he heard from a restaurateur with an excellent Beverly Hills location but no customers. “It was a Middle Eastern restaurant,” Del Rio said. “So, this guy was, like, ‘No one wants to come. I’ll sell it to you.’” Del Rio named his restaurant after Frida Kahlo, the famed Mexican painter and social activist, who also happened to be an excellent cook.
Only later would Del Rio know that this beginning was easy compared to what was to come. “California is a challenging place,” Del Rio said. “So many rules and regulations. The easiest way for me was to acquire an existing restaurant. I had 60 days to do the remodeling. I was covered by the health department. I didn’t need to submit new plans.”
When you can’t find the food you grew up with, you have the feeling that you’re missing a big part of your life.
Vicente Del Rio
In 2007, Del Rio’s first restaurant was doing so well he decided to expand to a new location in San Diego and then in Glendale. “In 2008, the big recession came. The economy was very bad. Big problems came in, lawsuits from the landlord, problems with investors, everything. It was not looking good.”
Eventually, the Glendale and San Diego locations closed. Del Rio said he relied too heavily on his ability to master every aspect of running his business, including the financial side. “I didn’t have enough money, so I took out too many loans. I have a big lawsuit from the landlord” in San Diego, Del Rio said. “They said I needed to restructure. I said, ‘Give me a payment plan’ that, even today, I’m still paying. I will finish the payments in December. I am very excited about that.”
Del Rio slowly began opening restaurants again, beginning with a Westwood location in 2012. This time, Del Rio was careful to buttress his ambitions with talented employees and experts. “We have grown from having two people in our corporate office to 12,” Del Rio said. “We’re trying to be more organized. You have to learn from your mistakes, so now we have a chief financial officer, an accounting department, everything to try to make sure we are doing this correctly.”
Having the right backers is also important. Del Rio had partnered with a private equity group in a grand plan to create “the first national chain of large-scale, authentic, high-quality Mexican food.” Not only did that not happen, Del Rio also lost the exclusive rights to the Frida restaurant name, unable to use it within seven miles of any existing Frida eatery. When he opened Frida Tacos in Pasadena, which was 6.95 miles from Frida in Glendale, the partners sued. The relationship never recovered, he said. Now, Del Rio has other partners who prefer to stay in the background. “It’s better now. They don’t want to be involved in the day-to-day operations. They don’t want to change the recipe for the guacamole. There really can be only one cook.”
Know your audience
“The food we serve is what our customers are asking for,” he said. “Authentic. Great tacos, mole, salads, posole. Now, we have more vegan customers. Everyone wants to know their food is organic. You have to accommodate that because, if you do not update your kitchen and your way of doing business, you will be gone.”
Del Rio and his wife, Andrea, have been married for 18 years and have twin sons, aged 12. “Each time they have a soccer game, I enjoy watching them play,” Del Rio said. He also plans to start an exercise routine because one of the drawbacks to owning a restaurant is having your chefs try out their food on you, Del Rio said. “Since I started this, I have gained like 40 to 45 pounds,” Del Rio said. “I will eat all day, and then someone says, ‘Hey, we cooked some great tamales.’ Okay then, let’s try them.”
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