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Utah's own Cafe Rio wins national restaurant award

Published: Friday, Feb. 11 2011 6:12 p.m. MST

Cafe Rio was recently given the Sandelman Award of Excellence, which is basically the food industry's version of the Academy Award.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The chants are part of doing business.

"Free meal!"

If you spend any amount of time at a Café Rio restaurant, you're sure to hear one of the famous staff chants.

"Extra meat!"

Now, employees will have to to come up with a new chant for being one of the best restaurants in the country.

"This is a huge thing for us," said Ben Craner, the chief marketing officer for Café Rio. "It's kind of like the People's Choice award from the restaurant's perspective."

Café Rio, which started in Utah, was recently given the Sandelman Award of Excellence. Basically, it's the restaurant industry's version of the Academy Award.

Last year, Café Rio won the award for Best Mexican Quick Service Restaurant.

Now, it's won Best Overall Quick Service Restaurant, beating several national chains for the award.

"We're kind of the little guy on the national front," said Craner, "and for something like this, we're honored and humbled."

Utah has a rich history of local restaurants doing well outside Utah. The first Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in Salt Lake City.

Newer startups include Rumbi Grill and Zupas Café, as well as Café Rio.

Utah's economic development director says it's no coincidence a lot of restaurants founded in Utah do well outside the state.

"There is a reason why we're so successful in Utah," said Spencer Eccles, the executive director for the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development, "and it has to do with the way we work together. I call it our secret sauce."

That "secret sauce" includes low tax rates, a triple-A bond rating, and universities offering entrepreneur classes. Eccles says it creates a healthy environment for Utah businesses.

"Utah has that pioneering spirit" said Eccles, "so the entrepreneurs flourish here, and we've created that environment where companies can really do well."

Of course, in the restaurant business, it all has to come down to good food.

"It doesn't matter what time you come in here," said Branden Hart, a customer at the Café Rio on 400 South in downtown Salt Lake City. "It's always bust. The food is consistent and the quality is consistent."

It seems the same can be said for many Utah startups as well.

e-mail: acabrero@desnews.com

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