Justin Swanson | NB Indy
“Excuse me, is it alright if we have a picture?” a woman asks for her two children. “We heard that you were the real Ruby, so we had to say hello.”
Seated on the iconic ruby red vinyl benches and above the shining Formica tabletops, Ruby, the real Ruby, gets this a lot. As always, she acquiesces.
It has now been 30 years since Doug Cavanaugh opened the first Ruby’s restaurant on Newport Beach’s Balboa pier, naming it after his mother. The franchise is now closing in on 40 locations nationwide.
The occasion called for time to reminisce.
“It was sort of a revelation,” Cavanaugh explained of the diner’s namesake. “We had the ability to give the restaurant a persona.”
Cavanaugh’s path to becoming a restaurateur was in the making since he was a boy. His godparents owned and operated the famous Pann’s restaurant in Los Angeles.
“We went there all the time,” said Ruby.
“It’s a classic Googie-style restaurant, which was an inspiration,” Cavanaugh added. “My godfather was also very helpful, giving me recipes and techniques and styles. He taught me how to make the hamburger right.”
However, entering the world of dining was not a cinch for Cavanaugh, who decided in 1980 that he would forego the family business of real estate development.
Passing the old, forsaken “gem of a building” at the end of Balboa pier on his routine jogs and bike outings, Cavanaugh was struck with the inspiration to transform it and rescue it from disrepair.
His initial plan for a ‘40s style diner in Newport was not be approved by the city due to his lack of restaurant experience (Cavanaugh was 24 at the time). Instead, he started a restaurant in Nantucket. After two years of seasoning, he revived his plans for a diner.
After recruiting his junior high friend Ralph Kosmides, the two refurbished and rebuilt the building at the end of the pier for $80,000. Receipts on opening day were $63.
Not to be deterred, Cavanaugh hung on. After the fledgling diner received a positive review from KABC television food critic Elmer Dills, lines were out the door. The initially projected annual first year revenue of $125,000 was surpassed nearly five-fold. The next year, receipts exceeded $1 million and expansion ensued, next in Mission Viejo, followed by the South Coast Plaza.
“I don’t ever take it for granted,” Cavanaugh insisted. “It’s a blessing and a curse to be an old brand because as an older brand you are oftentimes not thought of as much as a newer brand. But the good news about being an old brand is you’re tried and true. We’ve really strived to maintain the quality and deliver that brand promise to guests.”
Part of that known quality is the kitschy environment that gives the restaurant its character.
“We are the absolute opposite of hip,” Cavanaugh laughed. “We are about as square as square can be.”
Cavanaugh was determined to create an all-ages friendly place.
“People love to come back and enjoy a trip to grandma’s house. That’s what this is. This is grandma Ruby’s house,” he said.
Cavanaugh originally sought to deliver a simple menu of burgers, fries, and shakes. But as the franchise grew, so too did the needs of the customer, those which Cavanaugh felt Ruby’s must accommodate.
“We had to get serious about making something that had broader appeal,” Cavanaugh explained as he listed Ruby’s menu additions from breakfast fare to fish tacos, salads to sandwich options.
Ruby’s also accommodates health-conscious trends, providing turkey burgers and gluten-free alternatives.
When Cavanaugh stepped away for a moment, Ruby confided, “Of course I’m very proud of him, especially because he enjoys what he’s doing,” she said, but also makes time for his family with three young children.
On his motivation going forward, Cavanaugh repeats a refrain he must have used before, “You are only as good as your next hamburger.”