Fred Lopez and The Ref Sports Bar and Restaurant

To be able consider semi-retirement in your mid-40’s as Fred Lopez was doing a few years ago is a dream that very few of even the more advantaged-born Americans ever get the chance to let cross their imagination. So what would be the odds for a boy born in Mexicali, Mexico who started working in the California farm fields with his father at the age of three?

Even more incredible than him contemplating slowing down at mid-life, is that he went from that to taking over two large fitness centers, and acquiring 130,000 sq. ft. of commercial real estate in the last three years. And incidentally, he is about to open The Ref, an 8,000- square- foot sports restaurant/bar in Spokane Valley on Sprague at the former Owens Auction location.

In 1964 , when Fred was 18-months old, his father acquired a green card and moved him, his older sister and their mother to California, where even the humblest jobs offered him better wages and more hope than anything in their country. “Dad had only two choices, manual construction laborer or farm worker. He chose farming because he could keep his kids close by,” Fred said as we met in his office at The Ref, with the sound of the construction workers’ saws and hammers going on in the background.

“Back then they would let the kids work with their families,” he said smiling, without the slightest hint of self-pity. “They taught me to go behind them and put rubber bands around the bundles of chives they picked. By the time I was five I was picking and sorting out the yellow leaves and making the bundles for my own boxes.”
   Fred’s father received one dollar per box and gave Fred ten cents. He has no problem with working so young or contributing to the family’s welfare. “It kept us off the streets,” he shrugged, adding that school became his favorite time because of the drudgery of the fields.

 

“After school around 3:30 or so, one of the parents would pick all of us kids up in a pick-up and we’d have to go out the fields and work,” he said laughing, “I used to hate that.” A childhood in the fields motivated him to find a job in a grocery store by the age of 16. In two years he had risen to journeyman clerk in charge of receiving, working 32 hours a week and going to high school

When he was fired for standing up for himself after a fellow worker bullied him, Fred went to work for Edmo Distributors and took a pay cut from $11 an hour to $4. But again, had a childhood in the fields motivating him and within five years he was offered a chance to buy out a retiring partner.

The price back then for half of Edmo, which today is the largest distributor of aircraft avionics in the world, was $500,000. But the partner that was staying wanted to help him buy in because Fred had become an invaluable asset that was ambitious enough to go out his own. He told Fred he would finance the deal if Fred could come up $100,000. Even though Fred was married and only 23, he had managed to save $87,000 and so he only needed $13,000.

After being turned down first by his wife’s father and then by his own father for a $13,000 loan, his mother who worked as a housekeeper while raising Fred and his 5 other siblings asked how much he needed. “I told her and said that I did not know when I could pay her back. She just asked when I needed it ,” he said, with the same smile as when he talked about working in the fields. “She gave me the money the next day. I guess she had been putting some of her own money aside.”

Fred asked his pilot instructor at the time, Tim Gump, to join in the acquisition. Gump jumped at the opportunity and they had Fred’s mother paid off in three months and Ed Lansburg, their senior partner, paid off within three years. In 1996 they moved the company to the Spokane Valley to a new building on Mirabeau Parkway where it is going strong with 50 employees.

A few years ago, with the company stable and running without him needing to be hands-on, Fred began to grow restless. “It was almost boring so I bought a 1988 911 Turbo Porsche that needed some work” he said. “I’m non-mechanical and so I thought that it would keep me occupied learning to work on a German car for at least a couple of years.”

The car sits untouched because right after he bought it, a friend told him about a building in North Spokane that could be bought for less than half its original listing price of $2.8 million. He offered them a good deal less than their bottom price and became the landlord for North Spokane Global Fitness Center when the sellers accepted his offer.   When the Fitness Center ran into financial trouble and got behind on the rent, Fred partnered up with two of the center’s employees and got into the business.

When the Valley Global Fitness Center began to struggle, Fred and his new partners took over that business as well and soon Fred was able to purchase the entire 96,000 -square-foot commercial complex that is home to several other businesses including Walker’s Furniture and the Master’s Touch Hair Salon.

After successfully working with his two young partners to turn around the two fitness centers, Fred might have gone back to mastering German mechanics had he not been approached with the idea to fill the space where Owens Auction had recently moved out. “I had a guy who said he would put in a sports bar with me. He said it would be easy,” Fred said with the same smile, adding that by the time his friend was out of the deal due to health issues, he already had applied for a liquor license and the plumbing was in. “I was scared but by then I was committed.”

While Fred is finding out that opening a sports bar is not easy, he still believes that it is a good idea. “I see this whole place as kind of a working man’s Spokane Club. People can go to the center and workout or play in a tournament on the basketball courts and then come over here and get something to eat and watch a game and visit,” he said, adding that there will be a family dining area in front with the bar area in back.

Everything about the place has Fred’s creative touch (it is quite creative and well done) and it is going to be a place he would want to bring his family for dinner or just his wife for a date. “I love really good gourmet pizza and there is no place in the Valley with much of a selection. I know because if there were, I would be there,” he said. He also plans serve a large variety of wings.

A person would have to be a fool to bet against his chances with The Ref even though the hospitality industry is a dicey game. His odds of winning at this point in his life are nothing compared to what his odds were to get to this place in his life. I say he’ll have The Ref up and running profitably and still have time to master German mechanics and cruise to work part-time in his ’88 Porsche before he hits 50.

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