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In their own words: Ralph Rubio

Founder, chairman: Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill

Back story: When Rubio, 50, was a teenager he was bussing and waiting tables at restaurants around his hometown of San Diego. He also took frequent trips to Baja, Mexico, where he fell in love with their signature fish tacos. At 26, and with financial help from his father, he decided to open his own place—and bring the feel of those Baja taco stands to his neighbors. Today, publicly traded Rubio’s is 155 units strong and is credited with introducing the American palate to fish tacos.

The worst day, in a way, was the very first day, January 23, 1983. People had seen us under construction. People were curious. I underestimated how curious. We had a line out our door, and we were not ready. We thought it would be a soft opening. We hadn’t prepared, we hadn’t done any research, we hadn’t done a trial run. I was really winging it. We had one person ringing up orders, I was making burritos, I think my brother was bagging them. The whole thing just fell apart within 50 minutes. Some people waited 30 minutes for their orders. I was almost in tears. It was that bad. We had nowhere to go but up from there.

As I look back over it all, all the excitement over starting a new business, not knowing if you’re going to succeed. That energy, it’s an adrenaline rush.

That’s a great thing about being an entrepreneur. It’s a great life experience. All encompassing. You’re devoted to your cause. Most entrepreneurs are very passionate about their idea. You’re devoting everything to it, against a lot of odds, especially in the restaurant business. It’s a great feeling when you have your successes. I look back on those first two years, they were the best.

You’ve got to be quick on your feet. When there’s a problem, you have got to solve it quickly.

Rubio’s from day one has been: work hard and have fun. But “work hard” is first. My parents emigrated from Mexico. My father started sweeping floors in a plastics factory and worked his way up to management. By the time I was in high school, he was executive vice president. He did all that without a college degree. But he worked hard. Hard work and hustle.

If the food tastes great I am there, I’m your fan. Next is service. Third is an interesting environment. You didn’t hear me talk about price. Price is not the issue.

We went to this little coffee shop in La Jolla, just had breakfast there yesterday. Really old school, you make friends with waitresses. This gal Belinda—see, I remember her name—she spoke Spanish and she was giving my son a hard time for not speaking Spanish. He was there with his best friend. She was giving them a hard time in this friendly way. It was great service. It made the day.

Our strategy isn’t, let’s go out and beat those guys, it’s, let’s stay focused on who we are. If you’re just a “me too” kind of place, why should I go to your place? You’ve got to be distinctive.

I’m conservative by nature. It took us 10 years to open 10 restaurants. I think the fact that we went slowly at the onset was a big advantage. When we went public in 1999, we were coming off three great years. After the IPO we overextended ourselves. We had to close some restaurants and layoff a lot of people. With success you can let your ego get in the way. In the heady days of the IPO, I got to the point where I thought it was too much about me, that all this success was due to me because I’m such a smart guy. “Look at me, I raised all this money.” That was a huge mistake. I had to be humbled to get myself in a better place. I had to take the fall.

Close to 100 million fish tacos sold. Nobody in the world has sold more fish tacos than we have.

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