Rubio’s restaurants secret to success: Go wild

With the opening of two locations in Florida, fast-growing Rubio’s Coastal Grille, based in Carlsbad, California, has its first presence on the East Coast of the United States, and seafood is playing a big part in the chain’s success.

The 196-unit fast-casual chain features seafood tacos and burritos on all its menus. And while its expansion into Florida is making news this month, it is the growth of wild seafood sales at its restaurants that is most notable.

In an interview with SeafoodSource, Rubio’s co-founder Ralph Rubio said wild-caught seafood will be a centerpiece of the chain’s menu moving forward.

“I like the taste and the look of wild salmon,” said Rubio’s Co-founder Ralph Rubio, at the chain’s Winter Park, Florida restaurant opening on 14 September. “Salmon sales have improved with the transition to wild. I think we are a more compelling brand if we go toward wild and not farmed.”

After a personal salmon-fishing trip in 2015, Rubio made the decision to switch from farmed salmon to wild Alaska-caught coho salmon across the eatery’s menu. The move has paid off. Sales of its salmon tacos and burritos, have not been hampered by a price increase of around USD 0.20 (EUR 0.18) per taco and USD 0.40 (EUR 0.36) per burrito after the switch.

Conversely, sales of its Regal Springs farmed tilapia tacos and burritos have faltered as wild salmon product sales increased.

Rubio’s sources much of the 300,000 pounds of salmon it uses annually from the Seafood Producers Co-op (SPC) out of Alaska.

“A lot of their salmon is pole-caught, which is more sustainable,” Rubio said. “We are trying to buy a lot from them, but it has been a tough coho season.”
Rubio’s also sources pollock from Icicle Seafoods and Trident Seafoods. Mahi is also a popular ingredient in its dishes, and the chain buys around 600,000 pounds a year.

Farmed shrimp remains the chain’s biggest selling seafood ingredient, with much it sourced from India, Indonesia and Ecuador, though Rubio’s sources more than one million pounds of Pacific white 41/50-count shrimp annually from Vernon, California-based distributor Red Chamber.

“Shrimp is super popular,” Rubio said. “It’s a natural alternative [to chicken] for a quick, affordable lunch, where you want something tasty at a good price point.”

Rubio said he also wants to source fish not currently on its menu for limited-time offers. For example, it offered cilantro lime sea bass tacos this summer.

“We want to make opportunistic buys of species like halibut, barramundi and cape hake. We will bring them in for a couple of months and introduce consumers to different species,” Rubio said.

Rubio’s expanded to Florida after acquiring eight Lime Fresh Mexican Grill locations from Ruby Tuesday in 2015. After opening a Rubio’s in Tampa in early September and the Winter Park location in mid-September, the chain will open restaurants in Miami, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Coconut Creek and St. Petersburg by the end of the year.

The chain plans to continue to add new restaurants at an aggressive pace, Rubio said. All told, it will open around 10 new units in 2016, and, in 2017, Rubio’s plans to open more restaurants than it opened in 2016. The company will continue to feature seafood prominently on its menus and in its branding.

“It is safe to assume that all categories will increase on a pro-rata basis with shrimp continuing to grow a slightly higher rate than the other categories,” Rubio told SeafoodSource.


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