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Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis

Rey’s Pizza

It’s not the atmosphere that they come for. There are just a few tables, no air-conditioning. The paint is faded, and only a rusted railing separates eating customers from the sidewalk. Yet, these customers stretch lines out the door and purchase more than $3,000 worth of pizza a day from this 900-square-foot, weather-beaten, open-air pizzeria in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

It’s a dive, but don’t be fooled. This is the flagship store of Rey’s Pizza and the heart of an aptly named growing pizza empire (Rey is Spanish for king). The nine-store chain exceeded $11 million in sales last year; $1.2 million came from the tiny, dilapidated original store.

Tiny and dilapidated soon will be forgotten descriptors as the 21-year-old company moves its flagship store next door into a new 3,800-square-foot building resembling a castle. “Everything is state-of-the-art,” says Ramon Rodriguez Jr., vice president and co-owner. “It’s quite a change for us from a 400-square-foot kitchen with a 1950 Baker’s Pride oven.”

Rodriguez is taking leadership of the company his father began when he bought a small pizzeria with a partner in 1985. Ramon Rodriguez Sr., a Cuban immigrant who brought his wife, Margarita, and 7-year-old son, Ramon Jr., to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, already had a tumultuous life story when he arrived at age 40. He had been twice imprisoned by Fidel Castro’s regime, in 1966 for a failed attempt to escape to the U.S. on a raft and from 1969 to 1975 for operating his own restaurant.

When he arrived in the U.S., Rodriguez went to work in a Michigan meat-packing plant. After job-strain on his hands forced him to have surgery, he moved his family to Miami in search of a new opportunity and found the fledgling Rey’s Pizza. A customer loaned Rodriguez $20,000 to buy a partner’s half of the company. He quickly repaid the debt. “In four years he had opened four units,” Rodriguez Jr. says. “Before we owned a car or a house—before we could even buy furniture—my father opened three more restaurants. He always said this place was going to make him a millionaire, and it has.”

The Rodriguez business strategy is as interesting as the family’s background. The company spent $200,000 in advertising last year and not a word of it was in English. “My father never has learned English and has never advertised in English. Yet sales just keep going up. There’s a market we haven’t even touched,” says Rodriguez Jr., who is working on the first English commercial now.

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