Café Rio is a company-owned chain of restaurants that specializes in fresh Mexican food made from scratch every day. David Soyka samples this growing regional eatery’s recipe for success inspired by traditional cooking found in the Rio Grande region of northern Mexico, southern Texas and New Mexico.
So you want your restaurant to use only fresh ingredients. No processed food, everything made from scratch. No microwaves, no freezers. No food with preservatives. Instead of coming in to work an hour before lunchtime, your cook staff reports at 7 am to prepare a wide variety of menu selections for that day. Avocados are scooped out by hand to make guacamole, tomatoes and onions are chopped to make salsa. A key ingredient for your various soups, sauces and dressings is lime juice, but you don’t use the reconstituted stuff; instead, employees squeeze about nine cases of fresh limes (roughly 1,000) every morning.
Okay, there’s definitely a market for this, particularly in light of the current popularity of the Food Network and general consumer awareness of the health benefits of freshly prepared food. But your raw materials cost more, your labor costs more, so you’ve got to pass these expenses on to your menu with higher prices. Right? People should be willing to pay more for higher quality food. Right?
Well, actually, no.
“Sure, we have a higher overhead than comparable restaurants that offer Mexican-style fare,” laughs Ben Craner, chief marketing officer of Cafe Rio. “But it honestly never occurred to us to raise our menu prices because of that. What distinguishes us from our competition is our quality. Basically, we eat the extra cost of what it takes to deliver that quality.”
Some restaurant consultants might call this a recipe for disaster. Yet Cafe Rio, which opened its first Mexican grill in St. George, Utah in 1997 and is headquartered in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, has continually expanded. Indeed, Cafe Rio not only operates 39 locations throughout the regional southwest (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Utah), it’s about to expand to the east coast.
WHAT’S THE SECRET INGREDIENT?
“We have some very loyal customers,” Craner says. “It’s almost cult-like. We recently put up a Facebook page and without any promotion whatsoever we had over 41,000 friends a month-and-a-half later. The reason we have such super fans is that our food is unique, always fresh and highly flavorful. Plus, we’re known as a value brand – we give you a lot of food for your money. And we have a reward program where you get a free meal for every ten you purchase. That’s why we’ve done well even during the economic downturn. People still want to go out and enjoy themselves, but they’re not as likely to splurge on something overly expensive or that they’re not familiar with. They want good, healthy food, and at a reasonable price. That’s what we’re all about.”
Of course, when you talk about Mexican food and fresh ingredients, the elephant in the room is Chipotle. Except to Craner. “Look, Chipotle’s whole thing is that 90 percent of their ingredients are from local vendors. But, that really isn’t such a big deal. We buy from U.S. Foodservice’s®, too, just like Chipotle, but the reason U.S. Foodservice’s sources locally is it is more economical. It’s not a philosophical decision.”
What is a philosophical decision is a commitment to fresh preparation to the point where even the tortillas are made from scratch. Customers follow a food line in front of an open view kitchen to select what they want at various prep stations where the cook staff assembles the meals. The first thing you see in the food line is the hand rolled making of what in Spanish means “little cake.” The other thing you see that you might not in other Mexican grills is a breadth of menu selections.
“We don’t just do two or three items with a couple of variations,” Craner notes. “We have daily specials in addition to a regular extensive menu based on the Rio Grande style of cooking found in New Mexico, southern Texas and northern Mexico. And there’s a lot protein; we buy only USDA choice meats. “ The restaurant’s concept is based on the weekly fresh open markets in many Mexican cities. The décor is simple but lively in color with red, green, orange and red chairs and tables.
Craner notes that, for the most part, menus are consistent across locations, though there is some customization for local tastes. “Fish tacos are very popular in California, so we tend to feature them in that market more than the others. But, overall, we don’t have specific menus for specific regions. And, actually, within the Rio Grande style and with the range of ingredients we offer, you can get pretty much anything made anyway you want it.”
HATCHING A REPUTATION
Letting the product speak for itself has been a highly successful strategy. “Last year we won the Quick Track Award of Excellence from Sandleman and Associates as one of the best restaurants in the nation,” Craner says. The Sandleman award is a kind of Academy Award for the restaurant industry, based on several aspects of the kind of dining experience provided that encompasses taste of food, overall service, speed of service and value.
To paraphrase the famous line in the movie, Field of Dreams, if you’ve got a good product and a good concept, they will come. Which is why you can expect a Cafe Rio in your neighborhood probably some time soon.