Twelve Surprising Facts About Cafe Rio

I discovered some interesting facts about the Cafe Rio restaurant chain while doing a Standard-Examiner story.

Cafe Rio's marketing director, Ben Craner (left) and CEO Dave Gagnon (right) in the company headquarters' kitchen.
Cafe Rio’s marketing director, Ben Craner (left) and CEO Dave Gagnon (right) in the company headquarters’ kitchen.
The service line at Cafe Rio, where customers watch as their meal is assembled.
The service line at Cafe Rio, where customers watch as their meal is assembled.
The Sweet Pork Barbacoa salad is a popular menu item at the Utah Cafe Rio locations.
The Sweet Pork Barbacoa salad is a popular menu item at the Utah Cafe Rio locations.

1. The company’s CEO, Dave Gagnon, greeted me wearing shorts and a polo shirt with the Cafe Rio logo. None of this corporate suit-and-tie stuff! His casual demeanor put me right at ease.

2. The company headquarters are located on Admiral Byrd Drive, west of the Salt Lake International Airport. It makes it easy for store managers to fly in for training sessions.

3. Every Monday the headquarters staff has Cafe Rio for lunch.

4. The headquarters is equipped with a mega-kitchen, where store managers participate in challenges similar to the TV show “Chopped.” Without prior notice, they are assigned a menu item to cook from scratch.

5. Cafe Rio was founded in St. George, Utah, in 1997, by Steve and Tricia Stanley. It now has 74 locations in 12 states.

6. A former president of Burger King, Bob Nilsen, bought Cafe RIo’s six locations from the Stanleys in 2004. Gagnon worked with Nilsen at both Burger King and Taco Bell.

7. The chain was ranked at the top of the prestigious Sandelman and Associates restaurant industry survey for 2013, where more than 100,000 customers rated their experience at quick-service restaurants. Chick-fil-A and Cafe Rio tied for the number one spot.

8. Utah customers tend to prefer the sweet pork barbacoa over the other meat choices. But the East Coast locations sell more chicken than pork. Utah stores prefer black beans; Easterners prefer pinto beans, and they tend to order more burritos than salads.

9. In Utah, the typical order is a  sweet pork burrito, enchilada style, with medium sauce and black beans, according to  Ben Craner, Cafe Rio’s marketing director. If a salad is ordered, it’s likely to have black beans and creamy tomatillo dressing.

10. Employees make the food from scratch daily at each location, using a closely guarded recipe book that goes into the safe every night. Employees must sign an agreement not to divulge the recipes. The copycat ones on Pinterest and blogs are guesses by home cooks who have tasted and tinkered.

11. In 2005 Cafe Rio filed a lawsuit against Costa Azul (which became Costa Vida), alleging the new fresh-Mex chain had copied Café Rio’s recipes, menu and layout, among other things. When I asked Craner and Gagnon about the suit, they declined to comment, except that it was settled.

12. In Utah locations, the most popular specialty drink in horchata.

You can enter my giveaway for a Cafe Rio meal card.

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