Cafe Rio Mexican Grill Opening in Farmington

Cafe Rio fans will soon be able to order their Sweet Pork Barbacoa salad and other favorites at the new Farmington location. photo by Valerie Phillips

Cafe Rio is opening Wednesday, Oct. 25  in Farmington, and the first 300 people present for the ribbon cutting ceremonies at 10:30 a.m. will get a free meal.

Located at 426 Cabela Drive (bordered by Cabela’s and McDonald’s), this is the 30th Cafe Rio location in Utah. The opening also marks the fast-casual Mexican chain’s 20th anniversary.


This makes SIX Mexican restaurants in little old Farmington. There’s Francisco’s Mexican Grill, a well-run mom-and-pop establishment next to the Davis School District offices. Then there’s Javier’s on Shepard Lane, near Burt Brothers.

Costa Vida was among the first wave of Station Park restaurants. Then Barbacoa took a spot in the food kiosks near Fountain Square, and Chipotle opened near the University of Utah Health Center.

And NOW, here comes Cafe Rio.  As if that’s not enough, Tortilla Union Southwest Grill of Seattle has announced that it will open a Station Park location in early 2018. Keep in mind that just a few miles away, Kaysville has Orlando’s, Taco Time, and Betos.

Are we reaching the salsa saturation point? Can all of these places survive? 

A smothered burrito of Spicy Green Chile Pork at Cafe Rio. photo by Valerie Phillips

Hopefully, they can. Each of these places has its differences that attracts its own fans, from fast food to fast casual to sit-down service.

Some people swear by Cafe Rio’s sweet pork. For my husband, it’s Costa Vida’s mango salsa. I like Chipotle’s fajita veggies and Cafe Rio’s sugar-free lemonade. I’m not saying that one place is better than the other; I’m just saying they’re all a little different. And that’s a good thing.

For background about Cafe Rio, check out my 12 Surprising Facts About Cafe Rio, based on an interview I did a few years ago.

Cafe Rio started out as a funky little fresh-Mex eatery in St. George, Utah. photo by Valerie Phillips

Steve and Tricia Stanley first founded the funky little fresh-Mex eatery in St. George back in 1997. Steve, a chef with 35 years of experience, was working in Austin, Texas, when he came up with the idea. He named it “Café Rio,” drawing inspiration from traditional recipes and techniques from the Rio Grande Valley. The Stanleys opened a second location in Provo in 1998, following up with Fort Union in January 2000.

There were six locations by 2004, when it was purchased by Bob Nilsen, former president of Burger King Corp., bought the brand. Since then, the chain has expanded to 109 locations in 12 states.

In the early days,  it was a novelty to watch ingredients being piled into a shiny aluminum take-out container. The hand-made tortillas and from-scratch sauces were a step up from Mexican fast food, but you didn’t have to wait for a server to take your order, or pay a tip as you would in a regular restaurant.

Soon, the Internet blogosphere began spouting copycat recipes for the signature sweet pork barbacoa (which some customers fondly referred to as “mouth candy”), cilantro lime rice, creamy tomatillo dressing and other menu items.


The assembly-line style of ordering is still part of the Cafe Rio experience. photo by Valerie Phillips

Utah customers tend to prefer the sweet pork barbacoa over the other meat choices, according to Ben Craner, Cafe Rio’s marketing director. 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.

Craner said that In Utah, the most popular order is a  sweet pork burrito, enchilada style, with medium sauce and black beans. If a salad is ordered, it’s likely to have black beans and creamy tomatillo dressing.

Cafe Rio’s marketing director, Ben Craner (left) and CEO Dave Gagnon (right) in the corporate headquarters’ kitchen. photo by Valerie Phillips

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.

A bit of trivia: 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 company officials about the suit in 2014, their only comment was that it’s been settled.

The company has won the coveted title “#1 Mexican restaurant in the nation” by the prestigious Sandelman & Associates for eight consecutive years. FastCasual.comrecently selected Cafe Rio Mexican Grill as one of the top brands in its annual list of Top 100 Movers and Shakers.

“To open our thirtieth location in our home state of Utah while celebrating 20 amazing years, is incredible,” states Dave Gagnon, the chain’s chief executive officer. “It is our loyal and wonderful customers that have brought Cafe Rio to this pivotal point and we could not be more grateful. We welcome everyone in Utah to come join us for the celebration in Farmington when we open our doors on October 25th at 10:30 a.m.”

Cafe Rio welcomes the public and the media to join them and the Davis Chamber of Commerce for its grand opening. The restaurant will host its signature “giant burrito” ribbon cutting, promptly at 10:30 a.m. Again, a free meal will be given to the first 300 people that are present for the ribbon cutting ceremonies.