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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2006June — Food Safety

Neverending Story
At Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill, quality management is a job of continuous improvement.

Rubio’s Senior Quality Assurance Manager Jose Rodriguez (above, r.) makes surprise visits to restaurants, as do third-party auditors.

Hand-held electronic thermometers, in test in four or five units, will enable managers to quickly temp products then get back to their customers.

Rodriguez’ visibility in Rubio’s stores helps keep food safety top of mind.

With Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill’s food-safety processes, the story is not what’s new, it’s what’s next. Senior Quality Assurance Manager Jose Rodriguez calls it a “moving goal post.”

“When it comes to food safety, it’s always a continuous improvement,” Rodriguez says. “You can’t sit and relax. You’re good today, but there’s always new ways, better ways, better technology out there.”

Case in point: Web-based food-safety training. Shift leaders and managers use a comprehensive online education program, beyond what they learn in manager training, ServSafe class and their operations manual. But now the Carlsbad, Calif.-based, fast-casual chain is testing Web-based training in three restaurants for hourly employees, too.

“It’s obviously important that our general managers and supervisors know food safety, but at the end of the day, the ones doing the work day in and day out are the cooks and the people actually handling the food, so we want to bring it down to them,” Rodriquez says. He hopes to roll the highly interactive, bilingual program systemwide by the end of the year.

But he doesn’t want to stop there. Rodriguez would like to attach rewards to the lessons—when an employee completes so many chapters, he or she is eligible for a raise or job promotion.

Early and Often
Asked who is in charge of food safety, Rodriguez says, “Every single person at Rubio’s is accountable for food safety. I may oversee the programs, from the fields to the manufacturing facilities and obviously the restaurants, but we all have to buy into that philosophy.”

To instill that philosophy, Rubio’s trains and communicates with employees on food-safety issues early and often. Full-time trainers often travel to stores to refresh lessons. Rodriguez, who is fluent in Spanish, also makes surprise visits.

In his stead, a monthly food-safety bulletin is posted in each unit, encased in plastic above the handwashing sink. Started last fall, the bulletin is simple and quick to read, with a lot of pictures. Rodriguez writes it in both Spanish and English. Third-party auditors, who check each restaurant three times a year, know to make sure the latest issue of the bulletin is in place.

The chain also addresses food-safety concerns in its weekly operations report, which features news from all the support departments. The combined reports prevent unit operators from being bombarded with e-mail from headquarters.


Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill

Parent Company

Rubio’s Restaurants, Carlsbad, Calif.
2005 Systemwide Sales
$140.9 million
2006 Systemwide Sales
$150 million*
Average Unit Volume
Average Check
Expansion Plans

8 to 10 by year-end

*Chain Leader estimate

Rodriguez credits the training team and Rubio’s food-safety task force with keeping quality improvements top of mind at the restaurants and the corporate office. The cross-functional task force—comprised of Rodriguez; a scientist and technician from food and beverage; a representative from purchasing, operations and training; and the district managers—meets every six weeks. The team addresses issues that have come up, checks off on assigned deadlines and looks proactively at what might be ahead.

Field to Fork
Looking ahead, Rodriguez is keeping tabs on what Rubio’s manufacturers and distributors have done to prevent food-security issues and prepare for potential problems like avian flu. His 20 years’ manufacturing experience in quality assurance enables him to speak their language on his own annual audits and ensures they are not trying to cut corners.

Rubio’s demands adherence to freshness and quality guidelines of its suppliers, requiring frequent third-party audits and downloadable time- and temperature-tracking devices on perishable goods.

At the store level, beyond consistent and frequent training, periodic audits, cooking and food-rotation standards and systems, Rubio’s is testing hand-held, computerized thermometers to raise the bar on safety. Rodriguez admits that when there is a line of lunch customers out the door, it can be tempting to fill in times and temperatures after the rush. The new devices, which are in test in four or five restaurants, track when temperatures are measured to ensure it’s happening, and, more importantly, make it fast so managers can quickly get back to their guests.

“The unit I have is very expensive, like $3,000,” says Rodriguez. “I have another one coming in tomorrow. I’ll test this year, a few stores, a few products, find out which is the most affordable and what we want, and hopefully next year we’ll go with something like that.”

All in an effort to always do it better.

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