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Food Court: Casa del Rey finds success despite obstacles

Alex Forbess
Food Editor

With challenges like employee training, resource management and developing a strong clientele, it looked difficult to survive in the restaurant business. One shot is all that it takes to have a family-owned restaurant survive or become another failed American Dream.

“Family businesses just suck,” said Art Rey, owner of Casa del Rey in San Dimas.

Yet Casa del Rey has not only survived but become a local institution serving authentic Mexican food for more than 30 years, with customers continuously spreading the word of this friendly, satisfying eatery.

Initial skepticism aside, the restaurant is a great source of pride for its owner.

Rey said he was motivated back in 1982 to open a restaurant in San Dimas by the sense of opportunity. He had knowledge of the restaurant business. So when the chance presented itself, he decided to take a risk in a city that was, at the time, unknown to him.

That risk proved to be the start of a tradition in San Dimas, with loyal customers returning to enjoy an authentic meal at Casa del Rey.

Even with his success, Rey is still modest when talking about his life’s work.

Obviously both hard-working and grateful to his loyal customers, a typical mealtime find Rey walking around, asking customers how their families are and if their food is great.

“It is the love of the business,” Rey said. “There were not that many Mexican restaurants in San Dimas and I thought it was a great start.”

Writing the recipe

Located at 325 W. Bonita Ave., this Mexican restaurant has developed a great reputation among locals and people who are interested in trying something new. From the beginning customers craved its traditional entrees, from simple bean and cheese burritos to steaming chicken fajitas.

Every meal— not to mention appetizers such as the flautas—is presented with vibrant color from the ingredients that make these unique creations. Chopped green onions sprinkled over the chile verde burrito and a scoop of guacamole nestled next to chicken taquitos.

The San Dimas restaurant is actually the second Casa del Rey. The original, operated by Rey’s parents, Alicia and Guillermo, opened in 1971 in Temple City. With the experience Rey developed working with his parents, from learning the ingredients to handling produce and meats, he decided to venture on his own.

The San Dimas Casa del Rey was originally located across from Bank of America in downtown San Dimas. While developing a strong clientele, Rey and his wife, Jeanette, realized they were not able to serve at their full potential since their restaurant was not only small but closely surrounded by other small businesses.

This led to an advantage when they bought the property a couple blocks west, across the street from Chaparral Lanes in 1986.

“We realized we needed to expand,” Rey said. “What is even better is that now we own our property, so we do not have to worry about rent.

With the new place, Rey was able to add a patio for customers to enjoy their food and the California weather. Casa del Rey can now serve up to 150 people – eating under the sun or inside the restaurant.

“It’s like a hometown restaurant,” said Gail Hartman, an agent at San Dimas Insurance. “It is very welcoming.”

Whether walking through the dining room or greeting customers as they arrive, Rey is present to make sure everyone is having a good time.

The conversations – customers talking among themselves and servers telling the chef what to cook – create a noisy yet upbeat environment, something Rey says he loves about this business.

A growing family

As word got out about this new restaurant, customers became regulars, and today they are bringing their families to turn a simple dinner at this restaurant into a tradition.

“Now their sons and daughters are bringing their families here,” Rey said. “We have customers come who are fourth generation. It is a great feeling.”

An evolving menu, increasing popularity, devoted customers: everything a small, family-owned business needs to survive. While the majority of small, family-owned restaurants do not become successful, the restaurant industry has become a huge component of the U.S. economy, according to the National Restaurant Association.

According to this organization, restaurant sales are now growing with projected sales of $660.5 billion in 2013, up approximately 9 percent in the last two years. Despite major franchises like Chili’s or T.G.I. Friday’s demonstrating strong competition, these smaller restaurants hold a bigger role since the restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private sector employer.

“The impact of our industry’s vitality extends far beyond our restaurants’ walls,” National Restaurant Association president and CEO Dawn Sweeny said on her website. “Restaurants sales generate tax dollars for local communities – 13 million – translates into healthy contributions to state and federal tax revenues.”

Family businesses are responsible for 60 percent of the nation’s employment while also creating 78 percent of new jobs, according to gaebler.com.

Despite some restaurants not having enough employees – 93 percent of restaurants have fewer than 50 employees according to the National Restaurant Association – management still provides everyone with the proper training equipment and, within time, turn a part-time employee into a full-time employee.

Rafael Nunez, server and Covina resident, has worked at Casa del Rey for 25 years, starting as a dishwasher. Throughout his service, Nunez has seen Rey’s clientele increase.

“We have regulars who come back every week,” Nunez said. “(Rey) has loyal customers and the reason some do not return is because they moved.”

Like bringing a newborn into the world, any business has a life cycle, Issam Ghazzawi, associate professor of public management, said. There is a birth, growth, decline and death stage.

“The challenge for most family restaurants is they do not continue to the growth stage,” Ghazzawi said.

The customer is always right

A major obstacle a family restaurant has with growing is their inability to change, Ghazzawi said. With the menu an owner provides, he goes with the assumption that customers will enjoy their food, despite changes in culture or trends.

“That would be impossible,” Ghazzawi said. “It would be like me saying, ‘I might know how to cook, but it may not be relative to the customers.’”

Rey makes sure both his menu and service are updated for the customers. This practice, he said, is not because he wants to but has to for Casa del Rey to survive.

“As business evolves, you have to cater to what people want,” Rey said.

He starts by offering a cost-efficient menu that promises satisfaction with a variety of sizes and ingredients. A chile verde burrito: $8; a tostada salad with beans, topped with lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, tomato, cheddar cheese, jack cheese and mild salsa: $7.75.

Rey also introduces miniature portions of their dishes and uses healthier ingredients to cook them. Along with using cholesterol-free canola oil, Casa del Rey strongly advertises they do not use lard, pig fat that was commonly used as a cooking fat as a spread similar to butter.

“Forty years ago, lard was used in all almost every restaurant,” Rey said. “Eventually the culture evolved to healthy alternatives and it was our job to be ahead of that.”

Rita Thakur, associate dean of the college of business and public management, enjoys going to Casa del Rey mainly for not using this ingredient, showing that this establishment also caters for vegetarians.

“It is a great place that you can afford while getting good service and food,” Thakur said. “With all the health issues, people are looking for what their needs are.”

Rey also created a low-carbohydrate menu for anyone who wants the same great flavor but without the extra calories. Some these selections are the carnitas and the health-nut chicken salad.

With the changing environment a family business encounters, Ghazzawi said that a family-owned restaurant has to provide more than what is displayed on the plate.

“Everyone can provide food but you need to provide a value,” Ghazzawi said. “Providing excellent quality and service is what will make customers come back.”

Moving online

Rey has also adapted with marketing his restaurant for both die-hard customers and potential ones by using social media. On Casa del Rey’s Facebook page, there are pictures of their beautiful dishes, from combo No. 8 – two tacos with rice and beans—to their massive bean and cheese burrito on their cover page covered with chopped green onions and melted cheese.

Another clever marketing strategy is the posts they display on their page as customers can use a discount. On Feb. 23, one post advertised National Tortilla Chip Day, which was Feb. 24, and said if they mentioned this post the following day, customers will receive 25 percent off their food, including dine-in, to-go or party orders.

Whether it is printed in paper or posted online, this can be described as a coupon and Thakur said the challenge for any family-owned business is to transfer people from being coupon users to regular customers.

“Coupons are good to start with and it does bring people to their restaurant, but it does not guarantee them to return,” Thakur said.

Rey and his employees understand the terms and goal to retain their customers, while also attracting new ones, is to make their experience at Casa del Rey memorable.

“In short, they have to like the product, which is good service and food,” Rey said.

Their product is still admired by new customers and loyal customers.

Casa del Rey’s Facebook page has over 6,000 likes – the number is still increasing – and it has become a modern chat room for customers to comment on their favorite dish and upcoming events, such as National Chip and Dip Day on Mar. 24.

With any family-owned business, the challenge for the current owner, perhaps the parents, is to decide who is best qualified to run the business, either a fellow relative or a devoted employee.

“Having a business going three to four directions is unhealthy,” Ghazzawi said. “There has to be someone with strong leadership who can take their business from one step to another. Any business by definition is risk,” Ghazzawi said.

Rey makes sure everything is organized, from providing training manuals to setting schedules for his employees. For Casa del Rey’s future, Rey said that none of his children will run the restaurant, mainly because they have managed to make successful life on their own.

“We emphasized, ‘go to school,” Rey said. “When it comes to running a business, the first generation establishes it, the second grows it and the third spends it.”

When the time does come for retirement, Rey has prepared his succession plan but he has not decided who would be best to run Casa del Rey.

For now, he is not thinking about the end but rather the unimaginable: turning his restaurant into a success.

“It was just opportunity,” Rey said. “This truly is a mom and pop place.”

Alex Forbess can be reached at alex.forbess@laverne.edu.

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