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Rubio's co-founder talks healthful menu strategy

Rubio's co-founder talks healthful menu strategy

Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., is a contributor to NRN and president and founder of Healthy Dining and

Rubio’s Coastal Grill — the Carlsbad, Calif.-based fast-casual chain known for bringing beer-battered fish tacos from Baja, Mexico, to Southern California — has changed quite a lot since its humble beginnings as a walk-up stand. Today, co-founder Ralph Rubio operates and franchises 193 Rubio’s units on the West Coast. His current focus is transitioning the brand for the future.

In this interview with him, Rubio talks about the success of Rubio’s healthy menu strategy and the modern, upscale feel of the chain’s redesign, new logo and name.

Since my college days at San Diego State University — your alma mater, too — I have been a big fan of Rubio’s. I’m thrilled to be able to meet with “The” Ralph Rubio and interview you on your healthy dining perspective. Thank you, Ralph. How are you transitioning the Rubio’s brand for tomorrow?

We have grown a lot since we opened our first location in an old Orange Julius stand in 1983. We now have 190 fast casual locations on the West Coast and will soon be expanding to Texas. With that growth, we are always discussing menu and strategy. One of the most important changes to our strategy has been adding more healthy options and being conscious of calories and carbs, because that’s what our customers want.

How do you make sure the healthier menu options have wide appeal to diners?

 We have been working with celebrity chef Mark Miller. He’s a world traveler and has helped us to develop new, unique recipes with complex and truly outstanding flavor profiles. We’ve added grilled seafood platters that our guests love. We have new salads that come in four styles — with pan-seared shrimp and grilled or blackened tilapia, Pacific mahi mahi, salmon or chicken. And we are famous for our langostino lobster burritos and tacos too, when in season. Most of our seafood is certified sustainable, including our pollock, shrimp, tilapia and salmon, and our mahi mahi is sourced from responsibly managed fisheries — that’s important to us and our guests.  

Rubio’s has 23 qualifying choices on That’s great. I love the Chipotle Orange Salad with Shrimp. I add salsa from your salsa bar instead of dressing, and it is really fabulous and packed with healthful ingredients and nutrients!  I love your salmon tacos too. And of course, the langostino lobster tacos — it is hard to find salmon and langostino lobster in fast casual.

Our mantra is lighter, brighter and fresher. We’ve worked hard to develop recipes to support the seafood. We’ve added more complexity, and a lighter, brighter direction, like our lemongrass citrus rice. Our salmon tacos are grilled or blackened on our authentic comal with a special garlic marinade. Then we top the tacos with fire-roasted corn, a pinch of ancho chile, our creamy chipotle sauce, cilantro, onion and cabbage on a corn tortilla.

Our mango habanero mahi mahi tacos are seasoned in olive oil and garlic or house blackened, then grilled and topped with mango pineapple habanero salsa, our smoky red chile sauce made with guajillo, ancho, and red jalapeño chiles, along with white sauce and serrano cabbage slaw and served on a flour tortilla. [It totals] just 280 calories each.

Lots of protein and nutrients and flavor! I have to think your salsas are a key to your flavor success. Is that the case?

Yes, our salsas have evolved over the years in flavor and in fun. The old way to do a burrito was to add one salsa to the burrito. Now we find our guests try a few types of salsas and dip the burrito in the salsas for a great flavor experience.

What would you say is most important as you look at the future and new items?

We are very calorie focused. Calories go a long way to managing health. Our customers are interested in calories first. We have had calories on the menu for three years, and we have great numbers. We are proud of the calories we offer. Our guests are increasingly looking for functionality, and they are looking for nutrients.
We are working on possibly adding quinoa as an alternative to rice. We are working to have more veggies on the menu, front and center. I think our guests would appreciate having our grilled veggies as a side instead of rice or beans. We are testing grilled fajitas.

I love that you are working on more veggies. That’s such a great step, not only for calorie- and nutrient-focused adults, but also for your kids’ menus. You’ve also changed the look and feel of your restaurants. Tell us about that.

Yes, we launched a new rendition of our name, “Rubio’s Coastal Grill” and a new logo in 2012. Our new “Coastal Grill” look is now less about the beach and more about modern coastal cuisine. We have integrated a more modern and upscale look and feel in our restaurants with honey colored, natural finish tables and warm colors. It all works together with our menu to please our guests.

Are you planning to make your menu offerings more healthful? Join the conversation in the comments below.

How have the transitions over the last few years to more health-focused cuisine affected your bottom line?

Our transaction growth is higher than ever, and we have grown dramatically, so we know our strategy is working.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 26, 2015  An earlier version of this story misstated Ralph Rubio's title. He is co-founder of Rubio's Coastal Grill. An earlier version of this story also misstated the names of some Rubio's dishes. The chain servers langostino lobster and mahi mahi.

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