Irvine-based Baja Fresh brings El Torito’s ex-top chef on board

March 26, 2014

In another blow to the struggling casual dining segment, El Torito’s top chef has found a new home in the more lucrative fast-casual dining sector.

Irvine-based Baja Fresh Mexican Grill today named Roberto “Pepe” Lopez as its new director of product development. The move marks a significant career change for Lopez, who spent 31 years at Cypress-based Real Mex Restaurants.

The nation’s largest operator of Mexican casual dining concepts emerged from bankruptcy nearly two years ago. Last year Lopez left the company, which includes El Torito, El Torito Grill, Acapulco and Chevys.

Baja Fresh Chief Executive Chuck Rink, a former Real Mex executive, said he was thrilled to snap up Lopez.

“We go back a long ways, and have a long history together, “Rink said Tuesday. “We have tremendous respect for what he does.

Before bringing him on full time, Lopez had been consulting with the company on a few new products such as the new Bonfire bowls. Rink said Lopez will build on a menu revamp that started nearly two years ago at the 234-unit Baja Fresh.

Recent changes include reformulating recipes to ensure meals deliver “fresh new flavors” and consistency, Rink said. Lopez’s immediate focus will be improving Baja Fresh’s tacos.

“We really hit a wall there in terms of what we were capable of,” Rink said. “It's one of the areas where Chef Pepe will have significant impact.”

After Lopez’s makeover, Rink said Baja Fresh will look at re-imaging stores and expanding units by 10 percent in 2015.

Changes at Baja Fresh come as the fast-casual sector continues to show significant growth as consumers chose premium counter-service brands over casual dining. Fast-casual sales increased 13 percent to $31 billion in 2012, according to Chicago market research firm Technomic.

Contact the writer: Nancy Luna

OC Register Business 2    

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