For Christian Ziebarth—raised in Fountain Valley, a former website designer and food blogger who’s now the president of Naugles—it’s always been about Mexican food.
“My dad worked in LA and was always trying new Mexican food. One of his criteria on whether it was good or not was if gringos didn’t want to eat there,” Ziebarth says. “If they had food blogs back then, he probably would have been a food blogger.”
It was Ziebarth’s dad who introduced him to Naugles, as he would make Ortega Burgers at home, an idea he borrowed from the fast food chain. Ziebarth would later experience the real thing on a trip to his grandparents’ house in Joshua Tree. He remembers thinking, “This is really good! Now I know why everyone’s talking about it.”
Though the brand would eventually die due to merger, now at age 47, Ziebarth is the guy responsible for wrestling Naugles back from Del Taco in a trademark lawsuit.
He’s become a champion of the fast-food world—also landing on the OC Register’s 100 Most Influential People of 2016 list—and now he’s on the cusp of the biggest venture yet: Turning Dick Naugles dream in to a reality again, by resurrecting the fast food brand and building it into a 1,000-unit behemoth.
NAUGLES: SOUTHWESTERN DRIVE-THRU
Naugles was founded in 1970 by former Del Taco partner Dick Naugle. He opened the first in Riverside with 3 rules guiding his business: “Prepare food fresh. Serve customers fast. Keep place clean!”
The menu focused on the American Southwest—at least the quick-service take on the cuisine—with a menu of Mexican and American items, with a little bit of crossover. Items including the Bun Taco, Taco Cup and Cheese Burrito all became signatures, propelling the 3-location company to bigger heights.
By 1986, the chain was purchased and the new owner built it up from about 20 to 275 restaurants, with locations in California, Florida, Kansas, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wisconsin. Naugles merged with Del Taco in 1988, but Del Taco eventually closed the last Naugles, in Carson City, Nevada, in 1995.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
While Ziebarth’s dad should have been a food blogger, Ziebarth became one (and still is). He’s published nearly 300 reviews of Mexican restaurants on ocmexfood.blogspot.com since 2005. The tag for “Naugles” shows the evolution of what happened.
First, a post about his love for the fast food chain. The response was loud. More posts were published. From 2006 to 2009 you can see the fervor build in the posts and comments. At least 30 to 40 hits per day, he wrote, were coming to the site because of Naugles. Comments numbered in the hundreds on each post, great engagement for a local food blog, of people sharing their Naugles memories and reminiscing over items long gone.
In January 2008 he used his platform as a de facto petition to lobby Del Taco to include Naugles items on their menu. That led to a meeting with one of their marketing staffers, which lead to the promise of another meeting with the larger marketing team.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to make my mark on the world of fast food by getting Del Taco to bring Nagules back,” he says. “About a month later she wrote back and said they were still working on it. A month after that I checked in with her. She said she’d let me know when they could get me in. I waited a few more months and said I don’t want to push it, I may just sound like a pest, but you should really do something with this.”
“The line had gone dead for me in that regard.”
Around that time, an idea occurred to him: If someone owned the trademark, they could do or not do whatever they want with it. He’d seen Big Oil companies sit on the patents for electric cars; he thought that’s what Del Taco was doing to Naugles.
“Not too long after that, I found out that trademarks are supposed to be used in commerce. If you don’t use it, you could lose it,” Ziebarth says. “I started doing some research on my own, asking lawyer friends what they knew about it. Just in gathering information I thought I could have a case.”
That led to the big legal case, ‘like a football game,’ as Ziebarth describes it.
“I found out there’s nuances to trademark. Rights stem from usage. We could have opened Naugles several years ago, even before the case was decided. It’s a weird conundrum,” he says. “To earn a trademark you have to show that you’re using it. We kinda, should’ve started running a Naugles at the beginning of the case. But the other side of that is, if you lose the ruling you have to dismantle everything that was yours.”
Still, they built while in court. Ziebarth thought it would be easy to prove Del Taco’s abandonment of the trademark, but the case dragged on.
GETTING THE BRAND BACK TOGETHER
Ziebarth envisioned a team snowballing, attracting talent as they moved forward. He and his partners paired with John Smittle, now head chef at Naugles, who was running a restaurant in a corporate area of Fountain Valley.
The team researched recipe books and spoke to former Naugles employees before working tirelessly to recreate the old menu. They wanted high-quality fare with no MSG. Naugles makes everything fresh in house, with 100 percent ground beef, chicken breast, beans from scratch, and fresh sauces and salsas from dried chilies. Smoke and spice permeate the palate.
“We wanted this as natural and real as possible. We felt that doing that would actually help the flavor, and help you feel good about it later,” Ziebarth says.
Ziebarth and his partners decided to host a Naugles pop-up event ‘within the trademark conundrum.’
“It provided people with Nagules food, showed them that something is happening here, and it shows we’re using the trademark,” Ziebarth says.
“That way if we lost the case we wouldn’t lose much other than the trademarks,” he adds. “John’s deli was open, so we used the space for the pop-up. We sold 50 tickets slowly. Then when OC Weekly published it in October 2014 we sold out in an hour.”
A waitlist built to 670 people for the first event, all who had first shot at another, much larger pop-up in December 2014. The event sold out before going public, within 19 hours.
“With all of this, there really is something to this fervor,” Ziebarth thought. “People are really into this. It means something to them in a pretty profound way.”
Then, in early 2015, after nearly 5 years in court, and many times where he thought the judge would side with the corporation instead of the little guy, Ziebarth was actually declared the victor.
FROM TEST KITCHEN TO EXPANSION
Naugles test kitchen operated on a weekends-only basis when it opened, but the crowds still streamed in.
“It makes me happy when we have people walk in and say, ‘This smells like Naugles,'” Ziebarth says. “We had a woman who flew in, more than once, from Phoenix to John Wayne Airport, came to eat with us, went back to the airport and back to Phoenix.”
“Another thing that happens is parents will bring in their kids. The kids remember hearing their parents talking about how much they loved Naugles, and they try it and they love it too,” Ziebarth says. “A week or more later, the family comes back and says ‘My kids insisted I bring them back.’”
In May 2016 Naugles opened shop temporarily at Huntington Beach to large crowds all summer long. In the meantime, the Fountain Valley test kitchen was undergoing a remodel and menu change.
The Ortega Burger, Chicken Soft Tacos (bigger and tastier than Del Taco’s), and more favorites now fill out the menu. Orange shakes will eventually return as well. Now remodeled, the Fountain Valley location also boasts daily operating hours from breakfast until dinner.
Plans were announced recently to bring the chain to 1,000 units in a partnership with Irvine-based Fransmart, with Ziebarth telling the OC Register that franchising will be the best way to expand Naugles nationwide.
But with the fervor and growth, Ziebarth maintains his mellow personality and love for Mexican food. He switched from reviewing restaurants to just highlighting them on his blog once he became a restaurant owner.
A role that almost never was.
“I started this thinking I want Del Taco to bring Naugles back,” he says. “If they had done that, I would have said ‘My work here is done.’”