Rubio’s Makes Waves in the Fast Casual Segment

By Kerri Adams, Managing Editor 

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The fast casual segment is the fastest growing segment in the restaurant industry. Within this crowded marketplace, Rubio’s, a restaurant that brought  Fish Tacos to the masses, has become quite the success.

To survive and advance in the constantly changing fast casual landscape, a restaurant has to be able to evolve to keep up with the expectations of the consumers. Rubio’s started as a quick-serve restaurant in 1983, but morphed into a fast casual brand. Today there are roughly 190 Rubio’s restaurants in California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. Rubio’s helped define the fast casual segment, before there was even the term “fast casual.”  

It’s All About the Delicious Flavor

“My philosophy from day one was about the flavors,” said Ralph Rubio, Founder of Rubio’s. The dining experience is important, as well, but without a taste that has them craving more– what is the point? “The food has got to be delicious,” said Rubio. That is what Rubio’s did and the delicious flavors continue to attract more customers. “Our fish taco made Rubio’s famous.”

Having a carefully considered menu has contributed to Rubio’s success. “We are very thorough with our menu,” said Rubio. For example, when the dish the Classic Shrimp Burrito was first being developed, there was something missing. So it was put on hold, until one day Ralph Rubio finally got some inspiration for the recipe. He was reading an article about a restaurant that used some chipotle sauce to add a flavor kick to their tacos. This was just the missing ingredient to complete the recipe and chipotle sauce was added to their signature white sauce. “It took over a year to get the Classic Shrimp Burrito across the finish line,” said Rubio.

Being Different Than Other Brands

It is important for a brand to have a differentiator from others and to market it effectively. Rubio’s started off by providing a unique offering to consumers, with their signature dish of Fish Tacos. “No one was doing that,” said Rubio. “It was a territory that was not conquered, very few hang their hat on Fish Tacos.”

The best way to complete in the crowded fast casual marketplace is offer the consumer something they have not tasted before. “I don’t respect the ‘me too’ brands,” said Rubio. “Just because Chipotle is popular, doesn't mean you should copy them.” Rubio's aims to provide a unique menu, with dishes you have not tasted anywhere else.

Fast Casual Brings Quality and Healthier Food Options For Less

The fast casual segment has changed the restaurant industry forever. It has created a world where consumers–specifically millennials like myself– can find meals of more subsidence that don’t break the bank. “You can spend $15 and eat like a king at Rubio’s, and that includes food paired with delicious alcohol,” said Rubio.

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As fast casual landscape evolves with more fresh, chef-inspired menus, the consumer has made it clear that they want healthier, better quality food options, for a low price. Rubio’s is happy to oblige. The popularity of the famous fish taco and the health food trend has lead Rubio’s to expand their menu program with several grilled fish options. Rubio’s wants to keep the menu exciting, while not confusing the consumer with a constantly new menu. “You can go to Rubio’s 4-5 days a week and not get bored,” said Rubio.

Not only are consumers seeking healthier menu options, but “they are craving healthier beverage options,” said Rubio. There is a recent trend away from traditional fountain beverages. To accommodate this– Rubio’s has started to carry Joia Life, all natural sodas.

The Fast Casual Expectations of Consumers

According to Technomic’s Future of LSR report, 90% of consumers expect to see signature menu dishes on fast casual menus and nearly half (49%) of consumers said the availability of menu options, featuring new or unique flavors is important at fast casual restaurants.

A trend that Mr. Rubio has noticed is fast casual restaurants are pushing the boundaries with menu options, such as combining unlikely ingredients together in their dishes. In order to keep these consumers coming back to try signature dishes, more menu options are featuring unusual creations. For example, Burgerfi’s serves the BAD Burger, also known as the Breakfast All Day Burger. This monstrous burger features angus beef with the traditional ingredient pairings, such as cheese, bacon, onions and ketchup, with the not so traditional burger ingredients, a fried egg and some hash browns- all of which are drizzled with maple syrup. Even though this may seem like an unlikely food combination, it is Burgerfi’s top selling burger.

Fast Casual– Convenience is Key

We millennials don’t just want quality, value, and quick speed of service, we want convenience. To compete in this segment, your restaurant should have online ordering. And even better, a user- friendly mobile app with this capability.

Mr. Rubio is especially impressed with how fast casual is utilizing mobile ordering. “The idea that I could be sitting at my desk, punch in my order on a restaurant app, then walk over to pick it up– that is very compelling to me,” said Rubio.

Rubio’s Transition to Coastal Grill

As mentioned previously, Rubio’s values having a fresh and updated menu.The restaurant has done a lot of menu renovations, but with their recent growth, they are trying to stabilize the menu. The restaurant is also experiencing somewhat of a rebranding and re-imaging. 12 restaurants in the San Diego have transitioned into what will be their new look and feel inside their stores. All the Rubio’s restaurants will soon be following suit and will feature a cooler interior, with a coastal inspired design.

Previously known as, Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill will soon be known as Rubio’s Coastal Grill. Since fish makes up most of the menu, Rubio’s sees it as their social responsibility to serve sustainable seafood.

Rubio’s plans to continue serving more sustainable seafood options and to expand into new markets– but where is still be determined. Wherever Rubio’s does end up, either coastal or more inland– this restaurant will continue to make waves.