09:01 AM

Tex-Mex Innovator Russell Ybarra Named Social Work Person of the Year

Gringo's Owner Recognized for Service to Community


By Mike Emery

He’s a self-proclaimed “Master Enchilada Roller” and an alumnus of the “University of Hard Knocks.” Soon, Russell Ybarra, president and CEO of Gringo’s Mexican Kitchen, will have another title to add to his resume—Social Work Person of the Year.

The University of Houston-Downtown’s College of Public Service selected Ybarra for this honor based on his tireless efforts to support the community and his commitment to veterans. He will be formally recognized at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 20 in Room C100 of the Commerce Street Building.

A veteran restaurateur, Ybarra has grown Gringo’s from the original Pearland location into a citywide chain. He also has developed successful sister eateries, such as Jimmy Changas, Burger Libre, Bullritos and The Lunch Box.

Ybarra prides himself on providing exemplary service to his restaurants’ customer base. That dedication extends to the Greater Houston community. Among the core values he instills within each of his businesses is “Reinvest in team members and the community.” As a result, Ybarra encourages community engagement and contributing to area schools, little league teams and other organizations.

He also is passionate about helping those who serve and have previously served in our nation’s armed forces. Ybarra has been particularly active supporting Camp Hope, which aids veterans with combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Last year, he launched the initiative “Every Queso Counts” at both Gringo’s and Jimmy Changa’s. This promotion coincided with PTSD Awareness Day and committed 100 percent of each restaurant’s queso sales to Camp Hope. In turn, the organization matched the funds raised by Ybarra’s eateries. Previously, Ybarra and Gringo’s y collaborated with TexasTransEastern to promote Camp Hope through mobile billboards and massive truck wraps.

Within his own organization, Ybarra has worked diligently to support his  employees by offering competitive wages and benefits.

“If you would have told me I opened this restaurant in ’93 that one day I’d pay for funerals, vehicles, houses and surgeries, I would have never believed you,” he told the Houston Chronicle in a recent interview. “At the core of it, it’s about our people, which we consider our first stakeholders.”

Ybarra joins exclusive company as UHD’s Social Work Person of the Year. Past honorees have included Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg (2019), Jim McIngvale (2018) and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (2017).

A complete bio on Ybarra and additional details regarding Gringo’s Tex-Mex are available here.

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.