On the Line: Christian Ziebarth Of Naugles

When I started dining at luxe loncheras, Christian Ziebarth was one of the first food friends I made. Fast forward over five years, and I have the pleasure of discussing the Naugles brand he brought back from the dead. For those of you who have yet to drop by the Fountain Valley corporate kitchen, his decision to join us at Fresh Toast Saturday makes things even sweeter for those attending. Thanks for taking the time, Christian. And see you tomorrow for a taco salad cup and baseball cap!

Since you opened the corporate test kitchen last year, what have you added to (or removed from) the menu? Were the changes a result of customer feedback, or is there a specific plan to roll out certain items?
I tried to keep the cheese burrito off the menu until I knew we could perfect the process of its production, since it has its own unique production method in the kitchen. But customer demand for it was so high from Day One that we did the best we could to satisfy the demand.

The next real addition to the menu was the bun taco, which has been a hit. Then we added nachos and Hombre nachos using a house-made cheese sauce (Not from a can, but right from blocks of cheddar cheese) created by our wizard chef. We’re also looking forward to adding the American Kitchen items as soon as we can.

As someone who loves Mexican food, what has been the most eye-opening lesson(s) transitioning from a customer standpoint to someone behind the scenes?
First off, since last Sunday’s episode of Bordertown, I now refer to “Mexican food” as “Regular food.” Joking aside, at Naugles we strongly feel that we want to honor each and every customer, have them feel welcome in our establishment and that it’s a place where their voice can be heard. This coincides with many stories I have heard from customers of Naugles in years past who spoke of how welcome they felt at Naugles.

One stereotype about the restaurant industry, and whether it’s true.
Early on as a food blogger, I couldn’t understand why some restaurants didn’t have their big grand opening event on the very day they opened their doors for business. Then Ed from Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen explained to me that restaurants typically like to keep a low-profile for several months before having a lot of attention called to them.

I mentally understood his explanation, but grasped it in a much bigger way when we opened Naugles in July of last year and had a million scrutinizing eyes gazing in on it all at once, with many wondering why we didn’t have things honed to absolute perfection the moment we opened. In one sense, it was frustrating. But it also vindicated my belief that many, many people were interested in a Naugles revival, and it clearly showed the passion that is out there for the brand.

If you don’t mind us asking, how’s married life been? (Hi Jannette!)
It’s been great, and a big flurry of me taking my wife to different Mexican restaurants in the county (so much to be done there), plus also getting some great homemade Mexican food. Additionally, we both enjoy many other types of food. And she helps me with my Spanish. Spanglish, or “restaurant Spanish” don’t quite cut it in her book [Editor’s Note: Christian got married within weeks of Fountain Valley opening.]
We spotted a badass Naugles vehicle recently. What’s going on there? Is it available for catering?
Yeah, we have a rather unique vehicle, and it might be at Saturday’s event. Tentative plans are to use it for promotional purposes, and we may also be able to serve food from it, with the proper additions.

Best-sellers on the menu, and what are you serving tomorrow?
With our menu, we are trying to stick to the items that were available when Naugles first opened; however, the cheese burrito and taco salad cup were later additions to the Naugles menu. But they are still seen as integral Naugles items, and they are hot sellers, ranking right up there in sales with the original crispy taco and the combo burrito.

We will be serving the combo cup (beans, beef or chicken, shredded cheese and sauce), bean and cheese cup (beans, shredded cheese and sauce), meat and cheese cup (beef or chicken, shredded cheese and sauce), taco salad cup (lettuce, white sauce, beef or chicken, shredded cheese and diced tomatoes). We will have the classic Naugles red and green sauces, as well as our new “Spicier” taco sauces!

How did you decide on participating in Fresh Toast? Will you have any merchandise available for purchase?

We love the idea of being in the company of Anepalco’s, Taco Maria and all the other great vendors there and serving along with them. It makes us want to up our game. And Starch Collective is putting together a great presentation for our tent at the event. Plus, it does appear that we will be selling hats and t-shirts there.

Could you explain the varity of bottled and fountain sodas available? Why not just one or the other?
First off, we absolutely aim to recreate the spirit and feel of the original Naugles as much as possible, but in some cases, we just aren’t able to do it exactly. Some Naugles beverage options from before no longer exist, or they no longer exist in their prior form, or they don’t exist in a way where you can get them along with other prior options. For instance (and as just one example), we could get a standard Coke machine, but then it would have Barq’s Root Beer on it rather than Dad’s root beer. And also no Welch’s Grape Drink, and then some people would feel like we weren’t being true to the Naugles legacy.

Having said that, we also want to keep our food as clean and natural as possible. One way to do that is to provide soda that uses real cane sugar (or agave nectar in one case) rather than high fructose corn syrup. Before the test kitchen opened, I made mental notes and took photos of different self-serve soda machines that used real cane sugar that I had seen at different eateries. I had also spoken with Chef Andrew Gruel of Slapfish about the brand his restaurants use.

After my informal legwork, my business partner Dan found out about Stubborn Soda from a Yahoo! Finance article and sent it to me. After reading it, I felt we should contact them. He did contact Stubborn, and we liked their product. And now it’s in our stores, and customers like it, too— all of the flavors, but the Black Cherry especially seems to be a big hit. The drinks in the cooler allow us to have more traditional options, such as Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper, etc, and also to experiment with other options such as Jarritos, Fanta, Cactus Cooler, etc. Every weekend the selection’s a little different.

Would you like to address any issues or feedback that you’ve received since opening?
There’s lots of things that have been said about the Naugles revival in the press, and not all of it is true. I’ve found it to be very much the case that a lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is putting on its shoes. And that people will more readily believe anything that is sensationalistic and negative.

How has the research for additional locations been? What are you learning about real estate, and what challenges have you faced? Any good news to announce?
Customers are very excited for us to open all over, and so are we. The reality we deal with, though, is that things don’t happen instantly, and every potential property seems to have its own peculiar ups and downs and quirks and timelines. Having said that, things are definitely working out, and as soon as we can announce things on that front we will do so. 

We know where Naugles had been before, and are very aware of where the big contingencies of fans were and still are, including the key areas of Riverside, Las Vegas and St. Louis. In addition, of course, to Orange County.

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