From raft to riches

MIAMI—Ramon Rodriguez looks a lot like the diners huddled around the open-air counter at Rey's Pizza, the company he founded 21 years ago. Wearing simple knit pants, a golf shirt and a Monte Cristi fedora, the 66-year-old Cuban émigré appears dressed for a game of dominos, not for a day overseeing his multi-million dollar business. His straightforward attire says a lot about his hardscrabble past, but nothing about his incredible success. It proves he'll never forget the former, while showing he's not caught up in the latter. Watching him stepping into his business car—a silver 2006 Porsche Cayenne— heightens the scene's irony.

"He has good taste in cars, don't you think?" asks Julio Gutierrez, Rey's general counsel. "Not many guys his age drive one of these."

Though Rodriguez grew up poor in Cuba, he is a born entrepreneur. His drive to make money had him selling food at community events when only a teenager, and during his 20s, he and his uncle ran four restaurants until the communist revolution made private businesses illegal. The change so upset him he attempted to escape the country on a raft, but was caught and jailed.

In 1980 he received political asylum from the United States, and five years later he returned to his restaurant roots and started Rey's. (Read also The emperor's new pizzeria.)

"I'm proud of him for what he's done," said Raymond Rodriguez, his son. "He's made an empire out of nothing."

Nine-unit Rey's Pizza grosses more than $11 million a year in sales of mostly pizza and spaghetti. The debt-free business is owned by Ramon and his wife, Margarita. Like her husband, she works in the business every day.

"I don't know when we'll ever get her to slow down," Raymond said of his mother. "It's their life. They love this. It's fun for them."

Exit strategy

Two years ago, Ramon was dreaming of slowing down a little, pulling back and watching his business grow. But the birth of his grandson, Ray III, dubbed "Baby Ray," by the family, changed all that.

"The business was as solid back then as it is now, but when Ray was born, he got excited again," said Raymond, Ray III's father. Turning to translate for Ramon, who never learned English, Raymond added, "Now he says he'll go for five more years and then slow down. He wants to see it grow some more."

Rodriguez used lawyers to help set up the business to be not only self-sustaining, but to support his future bloodline. Of Rey's gross profit, 60 percent is reinvested in the business and 40 percent goes into a trust for the family and to pay their salaries. Though he values hard work and is proud of what he's achieved, he wants none of his kin to sacrifice like his immediate family did.

Memories of those tough early days float easily to Raymond's mind. He started working at Rey's at age 10. When the school day ended, the work day began, never leaving time for organized sports or school functions.

"I'll be honest, at first I didn't like working like that," he said. "We had nothing in the beginning, so we sold things like underwear in our flea market on weekends to make money. But as you get older, you learn to appreciate a lot of things. And when I look around, I see this as a beautiful business."

Ramon said his son could run the company on his own now, but he isn't turning over the reins totally. As the company begins licensing Rey's outlets this year, he wants to help his son make good choices.

"Though I admire him, he's not an easy man as a dad or a boss," Raymond said. When Gutierrez translates his son's statement in Spanish to Ramon, he chuckles and smiles at Raymond. "But I guess that's what made him who he is. I always want to try to prove him wrong, but he's right at least 90 percent of the time."

Raymond has big dreams for Rey's Pizza. Once licensing begins, he believes Rey's unit count could double in a little more than a year. South Florida, he believes, can handle as many as 30 units, and the potential beyond that is unlimited.

"We have a good system in place that we believe could go anywhere we put it," he said. "We've done well in Latin neighborhoods, but it will work anywhere."

A dream well lived

When asked if he's lived the American dream better than most Americans, Rodriguez isn't quick to say yes. He doesn't criticize his adopted countrymen for achieving less wealth; everyone here is free to live as they like, so if they choose to do otherwise, that's OK with him. In Cuba, he had no such choice, so American life without fetters is freeing to him.

"If you lose your job here, you have unemployment. But when he came here, he never planned on that system," Raymond said. "He doesn't know how to stand in a welfare line and tell a person, 'Give me my check.' He came to the United States and had a job in two weeks. A week later he had his first paycheck, and he was so proud of it, he took a picture."

Though wealthy, Ramon's wants are little. His residence is modest for his means, and though he owns an oceanfront apartment, he visits it infrequently. His sanctuary is his backyard, where exotic birds—some caged and some wayfarers who arrived when Hurricane Andrew liberated them from a local zoo in 1992—gather by the hundreds and where he tends his fruit trees.

When he leaves Miami, it's not for vacation, but for restaurant tradeshows. His passion is his business and he rarely drifts far from it. It has rewarded him handsomely, but the spoils don't interest him much.

"There comes a time when have what you need, and then you can't spend that much more money," Ramon said. "So you keep working and you make more, and you pass it on. It's a very pretty business."

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