The Grill is Gone: Pasadena’s Robin Salzer Retires His Ribs

Robin Salzer is also parting with his 40-plus years of memorabilia that adorned the popular Pasadena BBQ restaurant. – Photo by Terry Miller / Beacon Media News

Robin’s Wood Fire BBQ closes Aug. 18

By Terry Miller

I received a bitter-sweet email last week from a very unique man who has given so much of his time and money to feed less fortunate people in our community, while also trying to run a very popular and successful business for the past 37 years in Pasadena. Robin Salzer has created a unique niche that will indeed be hard to fill. Robin’s Wood Fire BBQ will close this Sunday, after which, the grill is gone.

“I’m retiring from the restaurant business after 37 years and Sunday, Aug. 18 will be our last day. I’ve been thinking about retiring for the last 3 to 4 years and now it feels like the right time. Robin’s Wood Fire BBQ will still be doing catering, events, festivals and the Rose Bowl but the restaurant will be leased to another operator. Thirty-seven years in Pasadena plus 4 years in Milwaukee working almost every holiday and weekend equals it’s time to retire. My catering manager, Camillo Di Masi, will take over the catering division.
“Thanks again for your never ending support of all the small businesses in Pasadena especially our restaurants.
“It’s time to learn how to golf so I can play with my kids,” Salzer told Beacon Media in an email last week.
Last year, Salzer and many of his Pasadena restaurant colleagues became frustrated, particularly with Mayor Terry Tornek over the minimum wage issue.

“There seems to be no respect for our industry. We hire first timers and we hire retired seniors. We collectively raise an incredible amount of sales tax that in part stays in Pasadena,” Salzer told us in an interview last year.

“We give a ridiculous amount of food and beverage away to almost every charity or non-profit that calls on us, so much that our industry is now on the verge of being a non-profit ourselves because we supported the wrong leaders and didn’t or couldn’t organize ourselves into the formidable city stakeholders that we truly are,” said Salzer.

The reaction to the news of Salzer’s imminent retirement was swift, particularly on social media.

In a Facebook post on Aug. 10 Bill Crowfoot wrote:

“A Pasadena institution is closing Sunday night of next week. After a gazillion years in the restaurant business, Robin is retiring! Go get some ribs right away! My David got his start in the restaurant business here right after high school working for Robin all the way through UCLA. I stopped in to say hello to Robin this afternoon. He’s going to get bored, so Pasadena better be ready for a flood of ideas from this effervescent man about all the cool new things we could be doing.”

– Photo by Terry Miller / Beacon Media News

Pasadena Independent sat down with the “Baron of Barbecue” on Tuesday for some insight into his iconic restaurant.

Q: Thirty-seven, plus 4 years is a long time, Robin. What has kept you going?

A: It really is hard to fathom on how fast 41 years has just zipped by. Most restaurateurs and small business owners work very hard and honestly never realize the extent of it or time involved until they actually pause or retire. When you have an unbridled passion for anything that you do it almost seems effortless even in the most challenging times. All of my friends in the restaurant business here in Pasadena have that same passion to survive and succeed. It’s the passion and the mindset of service before self that fuels success in any small business.

Q: You’ve fed thousands of people in Pasadena, not only in your restaurant and at catering events but at Jackie Robinson Center and other places where you donate not only your time and food but your heart. What is your primary motivation to help others less fortunate?

A: The Pasadena Hot Meal Program evolved from my City Council run in District 1 in 2007. That campaign was one of the most difficult and awe inspiring endeavors I ever took on. It was amazing to find out that at almost three out of four doors that I knocked on the resident either knew me, knew my restaurant, had a relative who worked with us or we did a fundraiser for their charity. When I was invited into their kitchens for a beverage and conversation I noticed many homes had almost empty refrigerators. These were my customers and they had no food at home. I promised myself that win or lose I was going to do something to help. I lost a very close election but with my friends Walt Jackson and Pastor Tom Bereal we started the Pasadena Hot Meal Program. Since 2010 we have served more than 140,000 free hot meals to those in need in Pasadena

Q: You’ve always been a force to reckon with in Pasadena — trying your hand at politics periodically. Can we expect to see you running for council or something else in the not too distant future?

A: Politics has been part of our family for decades. My wife, Ann-Marie Villicana, was elected to the Pasadena City Council in 1995 as the youngest and first person of Latino heritage ever and we are very proud of that accomplishment. Pasadena politics is really a full time job as the issues, both fiscal and of quality of life, have never been greater. I live in District 6 and would really like to see my council member, Steve Madison, run for one last term. His experience, temperament, personality and vast knowledge of every nook and cranny of Pasadena [are] what we need now in what I see as a sometime rudderless City Hall.

Q: In all your years in the food business, what has been the most difficult aspect? What has been the most fun?

A: The most difficult aspect of a career in the food business has been dealing with government legislation written by [elected officials] who have absolutely no clue on how to run a small business. Often they write laws based not on what is needed or correct but on what makes them look good for the next level up. I’ve said many times that if these politicians had first worked in the customer service industry they most likely would be better as a politician. A good example of this is in how Mayor Tornek lost all credibility and respect from the Pasadena restaurant community in his misleading and mishandling of the Pasadena Minimum Wage Ordinance while running for election. His lack of communication skills, arrogance and temperament clearly show that he was not ready and equipped to handle an issue as impactful as the Pasadena Minimum Wage Ordinance.

Q: You’ve made many friends over the years and truly gone that ‘extra mile’ for so many. What (other than, golf) do you hope to do in the retirement years?

A: The most rewarding part of being in this business is the relationships that start with a walk through the front door.  Staff from 35 years ago now visit with their kids. Being invited to first communions, bar mitzvahs, weddings, graduations as a guest and not a caterer is very humbling because I became a part of their family through their visits to Robin’s. Seeing a car on the street with a Robin’s bumper sticker is pretty cool especially when I know that I didn’t put it on the car. It has also been fun traveling the country looking for BBQ joints in the smallest two stop sign towns in America: the North Carolina BBQ Trail, the back roads of central Texas and South Carolina. I’ve made a lot of friends on these trips and ate lots of great “Q” too. Thirty-seven years of community support in Pasadena allowed me to live out my dreams as a restaurant owner. I really would love to learn how to golf. My three kids have been taking lessons at Brookside for a couple of years and I need to get caught up with them. Most of my friends golf too. I’m also going back to school to enjoy the college experience

Q: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in this business in the last four decades?

A: The biggest changes come down to two: social media for marketing, and fusion as a menu staple.
I never really got a grasp of the social media phenomenon but it’s here and it will only get bigger. Ordinary businesses can become overnight sensations due to Instragram, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook. It’s truly unbelievable but a necessary tool for any business wanting to succeed in today’s marketplace.

It seems that almost every new restaurant opening today has a blend or fusion flair to its menu — Chinese-Thai, BBQ-Tex Mex, burgers with breakfast in the morning. Many are adding more kids’ dining options because the kids will influence the parents’ choices for dining out. Another new factor to success is catering. Everyone now caterers. Every restaurant needs to have more streams of income enter their four walls to survive. Just opening the doors and expecting the lines to form is a thing of the past. Social media drives in the customers and a broader menu with something for everyone will keep them coming back.

Q: What’s your thought on the trend now for plant-based foods (i.e. Impossible Burgers, etc.)? Do you think we’ll ever stop eating meat in the U.S.?

A: Every year there seems to be a new food trend based on plant-based or non-meat foods. I don’t think that it really has changed peoples’ dining yet but that day probably is coming fast for some restaurants. BBQ restaurants use the truest and oldest form of cooking and that’s grilling and smoking. There will always be a need and demand for real-deal smoked and grilled meats.

Q: Are patrons fussier than ever about ingredients in the food you serve?

A: Today’s customer is more demanding because they have more options to choose from. There are more restaurants, more menu types, and more places to get their meals. Every supermarket in America sells a meal to take and serve at home. Costco sells a very good rotisserie chicken for $4.99 that can feed a family of four. How can a restaurant complete against that? It’s cheaper to buy at Costco than to make at home. Some kids have peanut allergies so restaurants can’t use peanut oil. Is it wild salmon or farm-raised? Is it organic? Is it house-made or bought from a grocery vendor? Today’s customer wants it fresh, wants it fast and wants it with a family-friendly price. Build-your-own restaurants like Blaze Pizza and Chipotle have changed the sit and order way of dining forever.

Q: What do you think of the so called “foodies” and “influencers” as well as the impact social media has on our society?

A: Social media “influencers” are now a staple of every part of life and commerce. YouTubers can make a fortune based on filming or selling anything with volume everywhere on the planet. Kylie Jenner became a billionaire selling makeup on the internet. She is more profitable than some makeup companies who’ve been operating for years. Sadly, I think that it’s more about volume than quality.

Q: If you were to do it all over again, what would you do different?

A: If I were to do it all over again I would ask my parents to have two of me to lessen the load. I would have continued to serve breakfast because my roots were from IHOP and with this new fusion menu thing I could have fused breakfast with BBQ.

– Photo by Terry Miller / Beacon Media News

At time of press, Salzer could not disclose the name of the person who’ll take over the location as the papers are not signed and sealed.

We wish Salzer and his family a wonderful, well-earned retirement. Pop by this weekend and on Aug. 24 when there will be a massive garage sale of Robin’s memorabilia and a huge selection of books. Grab a piece of Pasadena history.

August 15, 2019

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ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “The Grill is Gone: Pasadena’s Robin Salzer Retires His Ribs”

  1. Man, oh, man am I going to miss Robin’s, the best BBQ in the San Gabriel Valley. I’ll miss Robin, the man himself, and our great talks regarding barbecue and his constantly persistent efforts to make the food he serves better and better. Hopefully, those talks will continue between us as friends and neighbors.

    It was a magnificent run, Robin — you should be very, very proud of your fine food and for what you’ve done for our community, my dear friend.

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