Interview with Rubio’s co-founder Ralph Rubio
Ralph Rubio founded Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill back in 1983 on the shores of Mission Bay with his brother Robert. As the story goes, after visiting San Felipe, Mexico while on spring break from San Diego State, Ralph had and fell in love with fish tacos. After settling on a recipe for the Original Fish Taco, which they sold from 1983 until 2005 when they switched up the recipe and introduced the World Famous Fish Taco.
Now, six years after changing the original recipe for the first time, Rubio’s is going back to the Original Fish Taco. Ralph Rubio took some time out of his day to discuss the reason for the change, what other changes are coming to Rubio’s and what makes San Diego the best place to sell fish tacos.
San Diego Entertainer: Why are you making a change back to the original fish taco after moving away from that recipe six years ago?
Ralph Rubio: Some of us, especially myself, over time, realized that maybe we compromised a bit on the quality of the [fish taco] and the flavor, and so we went back to the kitchen and came up with a new way to do it. We’re really adopting a lot of the basic elements of how we used to make fish tacos for 20 Years; in the kitchen, hand-battering the fish. With the change now, we’ve brought some streamlined elements into the production because, remember, with 200 restaurants, you have all these other considerations – being able make the tacos effectively and efficiently in the kitchen so you still deliver a consistent product.
Six years ago, after a lot of testing, we confirmed that we could still deliver a delicious, good fish taco after outsourcing the battering of the fish. We were expanding, opening 15-20 restaurants a year and we were continuing to grow. That was the thinking back then.
But since then, myself and a few others thought we might actually be better off going back to the way we used to be doing it – hand-battering the fish in the kitchens. So we came up with a way to basically go back to hand-battering the fish like we did before, but now bring in the Alaskan Pollock pre-cut versus cutting it ourselves in. Before, we used to flower dust the pieces of Pollock before they went into the batter; that’s the way I discovered it down in Baja. We were able to take out the dusting because we changed the batter system a little bit.
SDE:What has the reaction been, from the public, after reverting back to the Original Fish Taco from the World Famous Fish Taco?
First, we tested this new method of hand battering in a few stores – about 11 restaurants – for a few months and a couple weeks ago made the switch to all 200; I think it’s been great. While the other product was real good and a lot of people liked it, let’s face it, food is really subjective. You and I could eat the same thing and you could love it and I could think it’s just okay. The early response has been excellent; people notice the difference like I do. The batter is lighter and crispier and the Alaskan Pollock is whiter and firmer. That’s what I want in a fish taco and I think the fish taco that we have right now is much closer to what I was serving in 1983 in mission bay.
SDE:Is the new Original Fish Taco recipe identical to its predecessor?
If you recall, I didn’t get a full recipe when I was in college. I was at my favorite fish taco stand in San Felipe [Mexico] eating fish tacos and drinking Coronas and I got the idea ‘you know what, I should open up a restaurant and sell fish tacos.’ I looked across the counter at the guy who was working at the taco stand and I asked him, ‘How do you make a fish taco.’ And he told me – in the batter you put oregano, you put mustard, and garlic and pepper and I wrote all this down on the back of my little telephone book. We used to carry around these little pocket directories, it was tiny and it fit in your wallet. I tore off the back cover and we now have it framed up here in the office. That was the genesis of our batter recipe. It didn’t give me portions, but it gave me an idea of what the ingredients were in the beer batter. So that was in 1974 and in the winter of 1982 was when I started full bore into starting Rubio’s. My brother Robert and I were in the kitchen for days; that was the first thing we did – come up with the batter recipe. We just kept experimenting. We went back and forth and after a couple days we figured it out.
That flavor profile that we developed in 1983 is almost exactly what you are getting today. I wouldn’t want it to change either because it’s what I fell in love with.
SDE:You’ve mentioned recently that Rubio’s change back to the Original Fish Taco is similar to the situation that took place at Coca Cola with New Coke. Can you explain what you mean by that?
My recollection was that Coca Cola did all this research to develop a newer better version of Coke and after all this research they roll it out on the marketplace and then decided you know what this isn’t working we’re going to go back to the way we were doing it. So New Coke went away.
It’s not totally analogous; for us it took longer. We did a lot of research six, seven years ago. We did at least a year’s worth of research where we had consumers do a blind taste test of the hand-battered way against pre-battered. And a lot of people really liked the new version. Most people couldn’t tell the difference at the time, but a good amount of people thought the pre-battered fish was better. My point is, research can be fallible. It is bound to give you some direction but ultimately you have to make that instinctive decision. Research is a tool, you can’t rely on it 100 percent. We knew that, but at the time, all of the arrows were pointing in the direction, ‘you know what we can do this, our guests like it and it’s going to make our operations in all these new restaurants we’re opening easier in the kitchen.’
SDE: Given the fact that now, after more research, would you say it was a mistake to make a change six years ago?
RR: Yea, hindsight is 20-20. But was it a mistake … well, some people might say that it was. Um … Yea, I think it was a mistake, personally. So, that said, I’ve owned up to it and I feel good that we recognized our mistake and made a change. In business you try some things and they don’t work out. But, as long as you recognize the mistakes and then take a better direction, you’re good for it
SDE: You could look at the situation that it helped you streamline the process then, which helped you expand but now to go back to the original fish taco you are still keeping part of that streamlining process.
RR: Exactly. That’s a good point. Now, we got to a new place with our process. We had to get more creative because now we have many more restaurants than we did six years ago. It would have been very, very difficult to go all the way back to square one. Instead we’ve come up with a way that is a hybrid approach and satisfies everybody.
SDE: What has the feedback been like recently? Does everybody like the new Original Fish Taco?
RR: Not everybody, trust me. We get instant feedback from our guests via the Web. I get maybe 50-60 comments a day and I’ve been reading a few comments where people say they want the World Famous Fish Taco back. Like I said, food is very subjective and I understand that. A lot of consumers are resistant to change and they like things a certain way. But, we’re making a bet that people are going to like the new taco much more than that way it was.
SDE: By bringing hand-battering back into the kitchens, the price is increasing 20 cents, do you see this being a problem with consumers?
RR: We’re very careful about taking price increases. But it’s not just the fish taco; we have other commodity costs as well. With the trans-fat free canola oil we use, oil prices have gone up; tortilla prices have gone up. It’s not just the fish taco change that is drawing price increases. And we hope to hold the line for a long time after this recent price increase. Has it been an issue so far? No, it has not. We’re judicial and careful about price increases. We look at the marketplace and what our competitors are doing and I think we’re at a good place with the price increase.
SDE: Is this the only change coming to Rubio’s restaurants?
RR: Actually, we are actually contemplating some changes to the menu. I haven’t told anyone this, but we’re working on taking one or two restaurants – a restaurant in San Diego – that we’ll call our “culinary test store.” Where we can go in and experiment with some recipe changes. Maybe different tortillas, different rice, salsa and get some real-type feedback and see what our guests think. We haven’t had a marketplace lab where we can do some of these things. We do have a test kitchen where we can do more formal testing, but this is about getting into a restaurant, getting new food it in the mouths of our guests and get feedback right away.
Let’s say I come up with a different recipe for one of our popular chicken burritos. Maybe a different marinade or I use cilantro-wine white rice instead of Mexican rice. You’d come in and you buy one as you’re one of our guests and then fill out a survey for us and we’ll compensate you. Then, you try one of the burritos the next day at a regular Rubio’s and tell us which one you prefer. We can do that very easily and by doing it in a restaurant environment it is more realistic. So yeah, we are contemplating some changes. Well, not just changes, let me say enhancements.
SDE: What is it about the San Diego area that makes it a perfect place to sell fish tacos but also to try out new recipes?
RR: Based on my experience 28 years ago when we started, it’s really just the proximity of San Diego to the border and Baja. San Diegans have more of an appreciation for fish tacos, by and large, than any place in the country. Down here, especially when you cross over into Mexico, you’re more likely to come across a fish taco and appreciate that Baja style of food. And if you travel throughout Mexico, like I have, you come to realize Baja cuisine is very different.
It’s not as heavy; it’s lighter. There aren’t a lot of enchiladas, or center-of-the-plate steaks with beans and rice. It’s more about the hand-held food – tacos primarily. It’s about the taco and just a few ingredients: some char-grilled steak or chicken, a little guacamole, some salsa, maybe a little lettuce or cabbage and boom, you’re off and running. That is Baja food and that’s really been what’s driven our menu philosophy for nearly 30 years – delicious, simple food.
Photos courtesy abrowncoat via Flickr.