By Timothy Rawles / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
If you live anywhere in one of the southwest’s many buzzing cities you are probably not far from a Mexican food chain with the suffix “Bertos” in its name. And if you don’t, one is probably on its way.
In the Queen Creek area, there are four restaurants named Filiberto’s. But are they connected to other similarly named eateries?
The answer is yes, but not in the way you might be thinking. For the answer, you have to go way back to 1964 and a man named Roberto Robledo. He and his wife noticed a lack of Mexican food in San Diego, Calif.
Armed with traditional recipes and a knack for quickly making fresh tortillas, they opened the first restaurant named Roberto’s in San Ysidro, Calif. Their company sign was bright red and yellow, a color scheme that would later become appropriated for their imitator’s curb appeal.
Thanks to the success of Roberto and his chains, it allowed him to bring some relatives over the border as employees. Two of those were his cousins Álvaro and Juan Rodriguez.
Not following their cousin’s strict recipes, the Rodriguez brothers started their own Mexican restaurant and appropriated the Roberto’s name. But Roberto objected and the name was soon changed to Alberto’s.
Enter the Rodriguez’s friends, the Tenorio brothers from Santo Domingo, Mexico. The Tenorios worked for the Rodriguez’s at their restaurant before deciding to branch out on their own. They sought Arizona as a place to start their own fast food eateries with the flagship opening in Mesa in 1993. Filiberto’s was born.
The entire business model was repeated. Filiberto would bring friends and relatives from Mexico over to work for him. Some in turn would go out on their own and open their own restaurants with the popular “Berto” suffix.
“The reason there are so many -berto’s,” Filiberto said in an interview with Phoenix Magazine, “is because those people worked for us and they saw Filiberto’s was a success, so they started opening their own chains. They wanted to do their own thing, be their own boss.”
The Tenorios faced some legal struggles in the years after opening their first restaurant. A court sentenced them to 13 months in prison for tax evasion and hiring undocumented workers.
Having accumulated hefty lawyer’s fees and monetary penalties from his court case, a desperate Filiberto met with Ivania Piskulich at the behest of his lawyer Mansfield Collins. Desperate, Filiberto agreed to sell his trademark and name to her company LEASECO Inc.
Piskulich in return said she would pay all of Filiberto’s court debts. The agreement also meant anyone could open a Filiberto’s brand restaurant as long as they paid her a licensing fee. This contract lasted until 2004.
LEASECO filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2003 and Filiberto was able to regain both his trademark and his name.
As for the man who started it all, Roberto Robledo, he passed away in 1999. It’s reported that he didn’t hold a grudge toward people who used his business model to create their own restaurant chains. He was just happy to make money and use it to rebuild his birthplace, San Juan del Salado.
Filiberto, it seems, holds that same philosophy. “They’re all from the same town, and we all see each other a lot,” says Filiberto, adding in Spanish, “we’re all still friends.”
The Filiberto’s saga seems like the makings of a big-budget Hollywood movie. It even comes with an uplifting ending.
While Roberto’s chain of restaurants is still popular in San Diego, Filiberto’s has prospered in Arizona. They now have over 55 locations that span over three states. Queen Creek alone is host to three Filiberto’s franchises.
Committed to giving back to the community, the company supports St. Jude Children's Hospital and youth athletics in surrounding neighborhoods.
“Filiberto's is dedicated more than ever to give back to the communities that have made us a part of their families - families that have made us the best Mexican fast-food restaurant in Arizona,” they write in their Facebook company bio.