“…And You Can Still Just Get the Tacos”

Chef Fernando Ruiz’s Escondido is slated to open July 1—what’s up with the membership tiers?

Though co-founders chef Fernando Ruiz and Vince Kadlubek initially believed the permitting process to open their casual Mexican food eatery Escondido (1101 Paseo Corazón, (505) 372-0535) would be much easier when they first announced their new project roughly two years ago, the operation proved more involved than anticipated. Now, though, as the business’ scheduled July 1 open date looms ever-closer, Escondido is practically at the finish line.

“I think we anticipated a certain timeline and that timeline, of course, took longer,” Kadlubek tells SFR. “That’s pretty common—and that includes getting the design process and the building right.”

Kadlubek points to difficulties starting construction due to backlog when pandemic restrictions started to lift, but also to finding the proper artists to adorn Escondido’s interiors. The building itself was designed by local firm SCOUT Architecture + Design to particular specifications across two stories and multiple outdoor dining areas—including rooftop and ground floor patios. The rest of the design had to be up to snuff, Kadlubek says.

As such, he and Ruiz hired several notable Santa Fe creators for Escondido’s visual aesthetics—like the multi-disciplinary Toby Morfin and mosaic artist Bard Edrington V, as well as painter Erin Currier for a portrait of Ruiz that will hang in a place of honor behind the bar. Ruiz will maintain the vast majority of Escondido’s ownership, after all: His story wends from incarceration in an Arizona prison; to prominent appearances on Food Network shows; executive chef positions at some of Santa Fe’s fine dining restaurants like Santacafé and Palace Prime; and, now, a space that is well and truly his own.

“Of course, I’m not doing everything like ‘This is the way I want it! This is what it’s going to be!’” Ruiz says, “but I know what my vision would be, and I guess at the end of the day I do have final say, but I want to give these artists a say.”

Ruiz and Kadlubek even went so far as to hire Brian Mayhall and Paul Feathericci from local company Audio Focus (the same company that handles sound design at Meow Wolf, where Kadlubek formerly served as CEO) to design the restaurant’s sound system. When it opens, Kadlubek says, Escondido might stick to Spotify playlists at first, but having a state-of-the-art 16-channel sound system for a restaurant at which audio was a day-one consideration could lead to special audio experiences during service in the future.

“I think there are 59 speakers—all hard-wired,” Ruiz notes. “That should help me do some immersive dinners.”

Additionally, Kadlubek says, Escondido should soon have its liquor license and a full bar program under the supervision of former La Posada bar manager Tony Fiorina.

So far so good, right? Right. But let’s talk about Escondido’s multi-tiered membership program that was announced earlier this week. The tiers, according to Kadlubek, work as follows:

Blanco ($100 per year)

  • 10 percent off all food for your entire party (unlimited visits)

Joven ($500 per year)

  • 10 percent off all food for your entire party with unlimited visits
  • early access to elevated, immersive dinners-dinner for two on the house annually

Reposado ($1,000 per year)

  • 10 percent off all food for your entire party with unlimited visits
  • early access to elevated, immersive dinners-comped dinner for four once per year
  • chef’s special bite on every visit

Anejo ($5,000 per year, limited availability)

  • 10 percent off all food for your entire party with unlimited visits
  • early access to elevated, immersive dinners-dinner for four on the house once per year
  • chef’s special bite on every visit
  • private party for six with Chef Ruiz one per year

Membership and/or loyalty programs are a re-emerging trend in the greater restaurant world. According to a recent New Yorker story, for example, the restaurant scene in New York City is going wild for exclusive members-only dining experience. Kadlubek, however, is clear: Escondido’s memberships are “trying to honor repeat visitation, almost like a local’s discount.”

According to Greater Santa Fe Restaurant Association Executive Director John Bradbury, membership programs are more common in chains or exclusive clubs, but at a restaurant like Escondido, it could lead to a broadened customer base.

“Now that we’re well out of COVID and restaurants are looking for tools to stand out…I think it’s a cool tool,” Bradbury tells SFR. “Fernando has a good team behind him and this is a nice innovation—I don’t know of anyone else doing it in Santa Fe.”

The membership program is hardly mandatory.

“I think at that $100-a-year Blanco level—that could pay for itself within three visits,” Kadlubek says. “People will still be able to show up, though, and you can still just get the tacos.”

At the top level, Ruiz will even come to a site of your choosing and make you dinner once a year. Meanwhile, the menu is basically locked down, minus a few tweaks.

“We’re adding entrees that will allow Fernando to flex and experiment a little bit more, and there are going to end up being some higher-priced items, but we’re doing that without eliminating the tacos and ceviche and jalapeño poppers,” Kadlubek says. “Part of what we’re trying to do is bring a sense of elevated dining toward the Southside, but also have things at an affordable price—where the experience comes with a little bit more of a big city feel.”

Ruiz, meanwhile, says he has no shortage of ideas.

“I’ve got a steak dish, a fish dish, short ribs, a quail special with mole; there will always be a taco special and a ceviche special,” Ruiz says. “You know, I don’t think it has hit me yet. Over the last three or four days, it’s started to creep up on me. I’ve come a long way, and never in a million years did I think I’d be the one with my own business.”

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