Roberto Robledo, 70; made chain of Roberto's taco shops an institution

By Jack Williams 

June 20, 1999

Roberto Robledo, a man of modest means and a wealth of pride, made tacos and burritos big business in San Diego.

But before his Roberto's taco shops became a fast-food institution, with 30 locations countywide and a total of 60 in three states, Mr. Robledo pioneered the Mexican mini-meal.

His junior-size burritos, called Poor Men, sold for 10 cents each at 28th and B streets in San Diego more than three decades ago.

Mr. Robledo, who opened his first Roberto's in San Diego in 1970, died Tuesday at his Las Vegas home, apparently of a heart attack. He was 70.

He had just opened his 60th Roberto's 11/2 months ago in Miami, said daughter Dolores Farfan.

Mr. Robledo and his wife, Dolores, left San Diego in 1991 and moved to Las Vegas, where they opened Roberto's taco shops in three casinos. But as the business expanded through the years, Mr. Robledo never wavered from his original concept: fresh, authentic, simple food at modest prices and portions.

Rolled tacos and burritos have remained his signature dish. Only in recent years did Mr. Robledo add the fashionable fish taco to his menu.

Once, Farfan said, her father asked a cousin who operated one of the Roberto's franchises in San Diego to remove the name Roberto's because the shop was not up to Mr. Robledo's standards.

"He was very concerned about the quality of the restaurants," Farfan said. "What made him unique was the love he put into it. He made a lot of people rich by helping them get started in the business."

But Mr. Robledo was no overnight success. For years, he struggled to support a family that eventually would include 13 children.

Born Sept. 12, 1928, in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Mr. Robledo came to the United States at age 14 to pick cotton in Texas.

He worked for a while at Ford Motor Co. in Michigan before joining a brother, Jose-Maria Robledo, in Santa Rosa to work in agriculture and construction.

"He believed in hard work," Farfan said. "He felt everybody was the same, that 'nobody's better or worse than me.' Social workers offered him welfare, but he never accepted it.

"He said, 'So long as I can work, I'm gonna support my kids the best I can.' "

Once asked by a reporter if his inability to speak fluent English was a handicap, he replied: "You want something, nothing's impossible. I always found a way."

Not until the 1980s, when his shops were well-established, did Mr. Robledo cut back to a 12-to 13-hour workday.

He began his career in the food industry by opening a tortilla factory in San Ysidro, providing tortillas to stores and taco shops.

In delivering his products, he became familiar with how businesses were operated. The next step was to compile a list of favorite family recipes and open a small shop.

Before Roberto's there was La Lomita, where he sold popular miniature burritos, and a former ice cream and hamburger stand in Chula Vista. "It had been a Frosty's, and he kept the name," Farfan recalled.

Mr. Robledo opened the first Roberto's at 4920 University Ave. in San Diego. By the next decade, he was getting requests for franchises from as far away as London.

"But I don't want them to change the food and just use the name," he told the San Diego Tribune.

In recent years, Mr. Robledo traveled as far as China and Japan to scout possible sites for Roberto's franchises.

But Roberto's place of origin, San Diego County, remained the mainstay of the business. Shops in Del Mar and Chula Vista report the highest volume sales, said Farfan, who owns Lolita's taco shops in Chula Vista and Bonita.

"Dad helped so many people to open a Roberto's that I decided to name them differently," she said.

While the taco shops remained his specialty, Mr. Robledo also owned tortillerias in National City until 1993 and in San Diego until 1997, Farfan said.

One of Mr. Robledo's 13 children, son Rodrigo, died at age 28 in 1989.

Survivors include his wife, Dolores; daughters, Dolores Farfan and Rosalinda Carrillo of Chula Vista and Reyna Robledo of Encinitas; sons, Roberto Jr. of Las Vegas, Ricardo of Chula Vista, Rolando of Escondido, Rigoberto of San Ysidro, Rogelio of Encinitas, Rodolfo of San Diego, Raul of Bonita and Reynaldo and Jose-Roberto of Encinitas; a brother, Jose-Maria Robledo of Las Vegas; a sister, Elva Robledo of Chula Vista; 50 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

Services were held Friday night at Davis Funeral Home, Las Vegas.

Copyright 1999 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.