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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2003 — May — Restauratour

Show and Tell
Rubio’s redesign and new name aim to prove there’s more to the chain than fish tacos.

Twenty years ago, Ralph Rubio found the recipe for fish tacos while on a trip to Baja, Calif. Smitten by the taco’s blend of crunch and cream, he brought the recipe home to Southern California and built it into a 143-unit quick-service chain.

Take a photographic tour of Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill

Last year, Rubio decided it was time for his eponymous chain to move beyond its signature dish. “I wanted to do a better job of mainstreaming the brand in the Tex-Mex category,” says Rubio, who is chairman and chief executive of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Rubio’s Restaurants Inc. “We needed to be known for not just fish tacos.”

Rubio devised a plan to reimage Rubio’s as a restaurant that serves to-order, fresh-grilled burritos, tacos and other Tex-Mex fare. “Early on, Ralph made everything fresh on site every day,” says designer Denny Gerdeman of Columbus, Ohio-based Chute Gerdeman. “He just wasn’t getting credit for that.”

Rubio and his executives added more grilled chicken and steak items to the menu. They changed the name of the restaurant to Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill from Rubio’s Baja Grill to reflect the new menu. They’re about to embark on a new advertising campaign, details of which haven’t been announced.

Perhaps most important, they designed a new prototype for the chain. It first opened in Ventura, Calif., in October 2002, and the second opened about six weeks later in Carlsbad.

Marketing the Menu
The prototype retains the casual Baja feel of its predecessor but packs in a variety of changes as well. Most are designed to market the new menu to customers. A shiny copper hood tops the grill, which has been moved forward to better show it off from the dining room.

In other menu-marketing moves, baskets of fresh lemons, limes and avocados hang just below the menu board. Fresh citrus decorates the salsa bar, which now occupies a focal location in the restaurant. Finally, in a move to downplay the seafood association customers make with Rubio’s, surfboard menus have been replaced with more traditional menu boards.

Other changes fulfill customers’ wishes for a more comfortable space suitable for lingering. At 2,500 to 2,700 square feet, the prototype is about 300 square feet bigger than the older design, allowing for better traffic circulation and 12 to 15 more seats.

A mix of light fixtures—halogen pin spots, industrial-looking incandescent fixtures and colored glass shades over tables—keep light levels low but still festive. Rubio’s hopes that, in addition to making customers comfortable, such changes will boost alcohol sales, which are now at less than 1 percent of the total.

To further move the dining room into the fast-casual arena, Rubio’s enhanced its signature thatched hut, or palapa, with a waterfall. The waterfall acts as a conversation piece and adds a soothing element to the dining room, says Sheri Miksa, Rubio’s president and chief operating officer.

Value Engineering
From the beginning, the redesign went through many iterations, says Steve Boreman, graphic designer at Chute Gerdeman. For instance, the murals he hand-painted were the result of many hours of research. “We didn’t want to paint an ordinary Mexican scene,” Boreman says.

The restaurant’s sunset colors, among them dusky orange and golden yellow, also stemmed from hours of research after Rubio deemed the original palette too Mediterranean.

Rubio and the designers continued toying with the prototype after the first version opened in Ventura. Most changes were made in the name of what Miksa calls “value engineering.” For instance, red and blue glass accent lamps, which were custom made for the Ventura unit, are mass-produced knockoffs in the Carlsbad store; and the same goes for the wooden-slat, free-standing chairs and stools.

In another customer-centric change, the distance between the kitchen and the pickup counter was shortened by two feet to improve traffic patterns and make sure that food gets to customers at its hottest and freshest.

The result? A workable, profitable prototype that Rubio and Miksa feel comfortable expanding. Indeed, the chain will open eight to 10 units by the end of this year and use the prototype when Rubio’s expands beyond its Western parameters, the timetable for which hasn’t been set. “This is our future,” Miksa says.

Fish Taco Especial; fish taco with guacamole, cheese and salsa fresca in a warm corn tortilla, $2.19
HealthMex Taco: char-grilled chicken or mahi mahi, shredded lettuce or cabbage, salsa fresca and roasted chipotle sauce in a corn tortilla, $2.65
Baja Especial: char-grilled chicken or carne asada, cheese, guacamole, choice of pinto or black beans, rice, sour cream, salsa fresca and chipotle sauce, $4.99
Grilled Grande Bowl: char-grilled chicken or carne asada, shredded cabbage, pinto or black beans, three kinds of cheese, salsa fresca, guacamole and creamy chipotle sauce, $4.99
Churro: traditional Mexican pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar, 99 cents

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