Cafe Rio execs talk strategy behind brand's rapid growth

Cafe Rio execs talk strategy behind brand's rapid growth

By Molly Wike

In the wake of opening its 100th location, Cafe Rio continues to shake up the traditional restaurant growth model with unconventional tactics.

Why? Because it works, and it works well.

Since its launch in 1997, in St. George, Utah, Cafe Rio has enjoyed positive annual sales growth and maintained steady unit growth of 20 percent each year with average unit volumes of over $2 million.

The Mexican cuisine brand, with its mantra of "fresh food, made fresh," had six locations by 2004, and its current leadership boasts 161 years of restaurant experience. In October of 2016, it launched its 100th location in Lehi, Utah.

The key to its continuing growth and success is its workforce, its philosophy and operations management, Dave Gagnon, CEO, said in an interview with

"There's an incredible amount of teamwork, and in the end…it's all about people," said Gagnon.

And it's all about focusing on customers.

After laying a strong leadership foundation with its executive team, the concept has gone to great lengths to instill quality leaders at each level of the company, Gagnon said.

The management approach creates a trickle effect and enhances customer experience at each storefront, he said, and that translates to happy customers who become loyal customers.

Without its "fans," Cafe Rio's growth would not be possible, he said.

But strong management is just one part of the chain's success. The concept has also been busy deploying innovative technology platforms.

Talking tech

"Technology plays a vital role in our business, and its share of our focus has grown exponentially over the last few years and will continue to do so," said Ben Craner, chief marketing officer.

After experiencing success in a “stamp card" loyalty program, the concept explored the benefits of transitioning to a mobile loyalty program. The concept's app allows guests to earn one point for each dollar earned; resulting in future cash back earnings.

The app connects with the company's POS system and allows for mobile ordering and location-based menu items.

The ability to track purchases and receive customer data on the fly has influenced technology's role in the back of the house as well, said company leaders.

Most recently, Cafe Rio implemented online training, recipes and mobile-optimized tools that let employees monitor their hours, earnings, and leave requests and ensure food safety practices.

"We have a rigorous food safety program, which includes both internal process and controls as well as unannounced, third-party food safety audits," explained COO Abe Hollands.

"Multiple leaders at each location receive and maintain ServeSafe Food Handling Certification, and of course, we comply with state and local health department requirements as well," he added.

Cafe Rio's philosophy is to ‘run each store like it's the only one,' and that's a big reason why it focuses on food training and preparation within the four walls of each store.

General managers and sauce cooks (who are responsible for in-house food production), must attend a week of “boot camp" at the Cafe Rio Advanced Food Training Institute in Salt Lake City.

During that experience, employees learn about the specifications for raw ingredients, learn the menu from top-to-bottom, the key steps for maintaining food safety and quality, and the ethos behind doing everything from scratch.

Its commitment to its philosophy as well as adopting innovative technology all play a critical role in spurring the concept's exponential growth as Cafe Rio plans to deepen existing markets while launching new stores in northern California.

"We want to continue growing our unit count aggressively but responsibly," said Chief Development Officer Don Lewandowski. "We will likely go deeper in markets where we currently have a presence today to leverage our people development pipeline, supply chain, and customer awareness."

Cover photo: Cafe Rio execs celebrate the chain's 100th opening.
Photo source: Cafe Rio

Topics: Franchising & Growth

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