The fish taco king reminisces

by Ana Ceballos

Courtesy of Ralph Rubio
Ralph Rubio, Founder's of Rubio's | Courtesy of Ralph Rubio

What began as a love story between a San Diego State graduate and fish tacos blossomed into a successful franchise with 200 restaurants in five different states.

“The epiphany was when I was eating fish tacos at my favorite stand down in San Felipe,” Ralph Rubio, founder of popular restaurant chain Rubio’s, said. “It was 1975 and I had a Corona in my hand.”

It would be satisfying to believe his love for fish tacos was enough to bring the chain restaurant overnight success, but Rubio doesn’t necessarily agree.

“I spent countless Saturday nights washing pots and pans,” he said. “And I would be thinking to myself, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”

It was January of 1982 when he opened the first Rubio’s in Pacific Beach on Mission Bay Drive, taking the place of an old hamburger stand.

“It is still there!” Rubio said in an uplifted mood.

“I would take a nap in the restaurant mid-afternoon because there was so little business and I had time to do that. If someone came in and rung the bell, I would just splash some water onto my face and serve them. They would have no idea I was taking a nap in the kitchen.”

Rubio’s father, who coincidentally started a business in which he imported fish out of Baja California, partnered with him after he worked as a waiter at The Old Spaghetti Factory and gained managing experience at the Harbor House Restaurant in Seaport Village.

Rubio was three years out of college with a liberal studies degree with an emphasis in psychology, and he was soon to turn 28.

“Failure was not an option,” he said. “If I turned 30 and this thing flopped I would have been a failure.”

Timing was key for the franchise. At that moment, fish tacos were not particularly popular in the market. Therefore, it took time for customers to get adjusted to the idea of fish inside of a corn tortilla. It was another two years after the inauguration that Rubio’s became successful.

“Starting a business is very risky,” he said. “The fact that we pulled it out on our first try was amazing.”

Now married with two children, a son, 22, and a daughter, 20, Rubio is supportive enough to allow them their own career choices, but acknowledges great potential for them to become entrepreneurs and continue with the family business.

His advice to college students is “It’s not as important to study a specific discipline. Just learn for the sake of learning and go where your interests take you and follow your heart and your brain that way.”

The 30th anniversary of the Rubio’s restaurant chain is next January and as this important date approaches, the advice of the founder’s father to him when he was 12 years old becomes more vivid.

“Son, if you ever get the chance to start your own business, you should do that.”