ROBERTO’S MEXICAN FOOD
President: Rolando Robledo.
Annual sales: Approximately $12 million.
No. of local employees: 200.
Headquarters: Solana Beach.
Year founded: 1964.
Company description: Operates eight San Diego County restaurants.
Key factors for success: Company touts fresh ingredients; value pricing; longtime family involvement in community; strong presence at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
The new operations vice president of locally based Roberto’s Mexican Food, restaurant industry veteran George Hunter, is eager to take a bite out of what he views as a dual challenge.
That involves extending the nearly 50-year-old family restaurant brand, and pushing into new services like catering to keep it competitive in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
The restaurant company started in 1964 by the late Roberto Robledo, now being led by son Rolando Robledo and his wife Cecilia, recently went outside the family to hire its first daily operations chief. Hunter started his new job in mid-November after 20 years in restaurant executive posts, including a stint as chief operating officer at locally based Pat & Oscar’s.
“Working for Pat and Oscar’s taught me about the passion that’s involved with having a family name on your restaurant,” said Hunter. “You want to stay true to your core customers, but you also want more people to sample what you have to offer.”
With headquarters in Solana Beach, the company now has eight restaurants throughout San Diego County. After recently launching a catering division to serve local office buildings and other workplaces, Hunter said the next goal is building the chain’s real estate presence starting in 2012.
Sites for expansion are being studied in Orange County, the Inland Empire and elsewhere in the San Diego region. Building on the success of its three current locations at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, which Hunter said are among its highest-volume venues, Roberto’s also will be considering other nontraditional locations for new eateries, including airports and sports venues.
The privately held company has been growing sales for the past three consecutive quarters, and its annual sales have been holding steady over the past two years at around $12 million. Hunter said he was brought in to help build revenue and streamline financial operations without adversely impacting the company’s employee morale, customer service or popular menu fare.
So far, he has done so through moves such as finding more cost-effective insurance coverage, and trimming costs for items such as credit card processing, as well as purchases of paper and other food packaging materials.
Billing itself over the years as San Diego’s “original taco shop,” Roberto’s today is up against numerous locally owned taco and burrito restaurants, not to mention national and regional players such as Taco Bell, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Carlsbad-based Rubio’s Restaurants Inc.
According to the industry consulting firm Technomic Inc., the Mexican fast-casual restaurant category tallied more than $4.2 billion in U.S. sales during 2010, up 9 percent from the prior year.
Technomic noted in a 2010 report that limited-service Mexican restaurants were able to boost sales by 2.7 percent and unit counts by 1.8 percent in 2009, despite an overall industry-wide contraction of 3.2 percent during the same period.
Dining and Dollars
Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic, noted that an economy geared to fast-casual dining — often lower priced than the offerings of full-service restaurants — is one element raising the profile of Mexican fare.
“Consumers are also calling for authentic ethnic dining experiences and spicier, more flavorful foods, so Mexican concepts and menu items are on trend in a number of ways right now,” Chapman said.
Hunter said Roberto’s has stayed competitive by sticking with value pricing and fresh ingredients in its menu, including popular items like its rolled tacos with guacamole and its original carne asada burrito. Dolores Robledo, who started the company with her husband Roberto, who died in 1999, remains involved in matters such as planning the menu and choosing ingredients for items.
“People are looking to go out to eat more often now, and they know their dollars go a long way at our restaurants,” Hunter said. “We’re consistent with our food, and the customers know they can feed a family of four for around $20.”