Rio Grande plans to improve its food and reputation

Photo by Jody Zorn of Zorn Photography

Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant is best known for its margaritas, while its food always seems to fall short of memorable.

Changing a long-standing reputation is difficult, says Jason Barrett, Rio Grande’s CEO. However, the company is determined to change the public’s view of its food, and has taken many steps to try to improve its overall customer satisfaction.

“Ever since I’ve known the company, it’s been a frustration and curiosity as to why the Rio’s food reputation is the way it is,” Barrett says.

The Rio Grande opened its first restaurant in Fort Collins in 1986, serving a “Tex-Mex” style of food resonating from its three Texan founders. The restaurant has since expanded into six locations across Colorado, with Boulder’s Rio opening in 1989.

“The company was widely successful in its first five to 10 years largely because of its luster of the margarita,” Barrett says. “From that came this reputation of ‘great margs, bad food or average food.’”

In August, Barrett gathered all of the general managers and kitchen managers from each location. He gave a presentation to them on his research of all the online peer-reviewed websites about the Rio Grande from the previous three years. Customers were consistently not impressed with the food, he found.

“When I got done with the presentation, I asked, ‘Are you OK with this? Is this what we are?’” he says.

The foundation at the Rio Grande is strong, Barrett says, but the restaurants seem to have trouble with execution. As a result, the Rio Grande has implemented many changes at each location. A new menu rolled out in May, and there have been changes in personnel, ingredients, training, kitchen materials and overall food presentation.

“We want to make our offerings and the look more contemporary,” he says.

He also notes that the things that are working for the restaurant will not change. The margaritas will stay the same, and the best-selling dishes will

remain the same except for some of the sourcing of the ingredients. For instance, the steak burrito, the Rio Grande’s number one seller, did not change, but the steak was upgraded to locally sourced meat.

“We’re trying to find local providers for each restaurant,” he says.

People are more food-aware in today’s society, Barrett says, which makes the restaurant industry more challenging.

“We want to keep each of our Rios unique and special to each of their communities,” he says. “Yet we need to standardize our processes to provide a consistent experience. It’s an interesting dilemma.”

The Rio Grande is launching a campaign in January to test its efforts to provide better and higher quality food to customers. The company plans to use social media, secret shoppers, peer-reviewed websites and email to gauge whether their customers are satisfied.

“[The campaign] offers an opportunity for a new and better relationship with our customers,” Barrett says.

There were no overall complaints about the food from customer Geoff Penley the first time he dined at the restaurant. Nevertheless, he has since returned to the Rio Grande solely for its margaritas.

“I would say for a Mexican chain, it’s good food,” he says. “I personally know them for their margaritas because they are tasty and potent.”

The food is less than impressive for Analiese Hock, however. In the few times she has dined at the restaurant, she found that the food displayed no special or creative aspects.

“It is really just your average, generic Mexican food,” she says. “If you go to a lot of other restaurants with the same price point, you’ll get something more than an enchilada or a taco.”

At Boulder’s location of the Rio Grande, the food has never been a blatant problem, says Rob Trenz, the general manager. Trenz — who has worked for the company for 24 years — says that management doesn’t often get complaints that the food isn’t good. Instead, the restaurant sees many regulars who come in every week, he says.

Nevertheless, the restaurant has implemented its own changes in ingredients, food sourcing and presentation.

“We’ve always been a scratch kitchen,” Trenz says. “We’ve always tried to locally outsource food. We try to maximize the likelihood that people will come back.”

In addition, the restaurant hired a new kitchen manager to oversee the cooking, and implemented significant staff training to teach them “knowledge-based service,” he says. As a result, the servers will know more about the dishes themselves, and can better relate that to customers.

“The more people know about our food, the more people tend to appreciate it,” Trenz says. “If somebody’s interested, we want our servers to talk about it.”

The new steps to improve the food are a way to help change people’s overall perspective, Trenz explains.

“I think it’s a subtle thing,” he adds.

“We’re not trying to become overly solicitous. We’re not going to push anything too hard at anybody.”