Marina Mayer, Executive Editor
When it comes to introducing new products and staying on trend, food manufacturers must drive on the fast track. Even the slightest delay in a launch or the smallest of production interference can push a company behind the rest of the pack. But some companies come equipped with the right stamina, drive and persistence to keep up with the competition, regardless of what challenges lie in the road ahead. The folks at Ruiz Foods are the perfect example.
From its first days producing bean and cheese enchiladas and chili rellenos, 46-year-old Ruiz Foods now employs approximately 2,500 people who process more than 200 retail and foodservice stock-keeping units (SKUs) at three facilities in its Dinuba, Calif.-based headquarters, as well as its Tulare, Calif., and Denison, Texas, plants.
Louis Ruiz, the company founder, and his son Fred Ruiz, co-founder and chairman emeritus, began producing and selling frozen Mexican foods to mom-and-pop grocery stores in the San Joaquin Valley. Today, the third-generation company boasts an estimated $450 million in sales, and is ranked as the as the sixth largest Hispanic-owned company in the United States and the largest in California, according to Hispanic Business magazine.
Just like any good race driver though, to stay ahead of the curve, leaders must instill a great team in the trenches. That’s why Fred, a 2006 inductee into the industry’s “Frozen Food Hall of Fame,” handed the responsibilities of president and chief executive officer over to his son, Bryce, and appointed his daughter, Kim Ruiz Beck, as chairman.
“My dad always said, ‘If you’re not growing, you’re dying,’” says Fred. “As a result, we were very opportunistic and growth-oriented. Today, Bryce and Kim have embraced the Ruiz family legacy and are as driven as my dad and I ever were.
“I don’t exactly know when we became a national company, but there is a different dimension now,” he adds. “Bryce is not limited by the past and I think that it’s an advantage. Sometimes the past can be a burden and be limiting in terms of your outlook.”
Ruiz Foods continues to stay on the fast track to success, even as other companies are riding a roller-coaster ride, and fending off economical woes.
“Today’s consumer continues to look for quality, innovation, convenience and value,” Bryce says. The company’s outlook continues to remain bright, even as it hits the halfway point of 2011. According to data from Chicago-based SymphonyIRI Group, Ruiz Foods is the leader in the frozen Mexican foods category with a 24% dollar share for the latest 52 weeks, ending June 12. “We have consumer research that shows El Monterey is No. 11 among the top prepared food brands,” he says. “Moreover, of the top 20 frozen prepared foods brands, El Monterey is growing by 5.3%, which at the second fastest rate. That tells us there’s still a lot of opportunity, and that El Monterey is still a new idea in most households. We’ve been at this for so many years and just didn’t realize that our brand means as much as it does.”
Behind the scenes, Ruiz Foods flourishes because of its advanced sales planning schedules (more than a year out). “Today, we’re looking out further,” says Bryce. “When you think more strategically, you can better utilize your funds. Although marketing and sales teams have not grown, we’re doing more and becoming more focused on our core. Our theme is, ‘Fewer. Bigger. Better.’ Let’s do fewer things, think bigger and then execute to a T.”
To coincide with its bigger and better theme, in January 2010, Ruiz Foods launched Tornados, created to give it more elbow room to branch out from Hispanic flavor combinations and into broader varieties. The 3-oz., hand-held snack consists of freshly baked flour tortillas rolled in a crispy seasoned batter and stuffed with savory meats and melted cheese. They come in Ranchero Beef & Cheese, Grilled Chicken & Cheese, Chicken Club, Southwest Chicken, Cheesy Pepper Jack and Cheesy Pepperoni varieties. Then, Ruiz Foods introduced an even larger mainline packaging shift, further targeting the multi-serve, snacking occasions.
In May 2010, Ruiz Foods repackaged 12 different El Monterey retail products-everything from six-count tamales and quesadillas to 14- and 16-count taquitos and mini chimichangas-by upgrading the packaging graphics and photography for the first time.
“This takes all the complexity out for retailers,” says Bryce. “No longer will we have one-off items, such as tamales, in meat-style trays. Now we can bundle all of our El Monterey brand equity with a common look and common price points. This will give us greater presence across a full door, while it makes it easier for retailers to feature and display our products.”
For instance, the El Monterey snack bag line features a resealable standup pouch, and includes flour and corn tortillas, Chicken and Shredded Beef taquitos, Southwest Chicken taquitos, two kinds of mini chimis, quesadillas (Chicken and Shredded Steak) and tamales (Chicken and Beef). The El Monterey 2-pack burritos and chimichangas are packaged for the one- to two-person household and consist of similar items as above.
El Monterey Supreme burritos, butcher-wrapped burritos, XX large burritos, chimichangas and the Gigante burritos are manufactured specifically for the convenience store customer, as they look for products for their hot case, microwaves, freezer, etc. These lines entail the same recipes of freshly baked tortillas, real cheeses, authentic Mexican spices and chunks of white chicken meat or shredded steak.
Full speed ahead
In addition to its lineup of new products and packaging initiatives, the past few years have been historic ones for Ruiz Foods and its El Monterey and Tornados brands.
For starters, in 2009, Ruiz Foods teamed up with Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team, to sponsor SHR driver Ryan Newman. Newman represents Ruiz Foods’ convenience store and retail snack brand, Tornados, in the NASCAR competitions. In October 2010, Ruiz Foods sponsored Newman in a nationwide series car featuring the company’s El Monterey brand at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway. This year, Tornados continued its Ryan Newman NASCAR sponsorship and El Monterey became an associate sponsor of Tony Stewart, another SHR driver.
In the fall of 2010, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) also treated 300 of Ruiz Foods’ team members to hospitality events, garage tours and pace car lap activities. (A month later, approximately 250 team members at Ruiz Foods’ Denison, Texas, plant enjoyed the same NASCAR treatment in Dallas.) “Just think. More than 300 team members got on a bus at two in the morning to do this [NASCAR trip],” Bryce says. “For many, this was their first exposure to the NASCAR, and after visiting the hospitality tent, touring the track and more, they had a great time and the full experience. It really created a team-building atmosphere.”
“Such an event would’ve surpassed anything my dad ever thought it would be,” Fred says. “The most important thing he talked about was that we build a brand. He also talked about investing in your business, automating and becoming a low-cost manufacturer. If we could build a brand and do that, we could compete against anybody.”
Recently, Ruiz Foods showcased its Tornados Sampling Tour at the Kentucky Motor Speedway on July 9. Staff in a 27-ft. painted-out truck produced more than 1,000 Tornados an hour and distributed Tornados coupons redeemable only at Thortons convenience stores in Kentucky. A full-size NASCAR #39 Tornados Sprint Cup Series racecar accompanied the tour.
“In most markets, we overlay the promotion with radio and geo-targeted social media to drive awareness to our customers’ locations,” says Kimberli Carroll, vice president of foodservice sales and marketing. “To date, our Tornados Sampling Tour promotions have been very successful, so much so that we are already committed to continue our NASCAR customer promotions in 2012.” Ruiz Foods also finalized developing promotional campaigns with six Six Flags locations (Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey is home to a Tornados Zone ride).
Ruiz identifies NASCAR dads as its core c-store shopper. That’s why it developed the company’s first multi-media promotional campaign, complete with in-store merchandising materials, social and digital media and 30-second TV spots. Themed “Full Force Flavor. Full Force Fun,” the spot ran in metro markets on SPEED TV, which reaches the NASCAR family.
“This was a case where, because you have family working this business, we allocated the extra funds,” says Bryce. “Although a national ad campaign was not in the plan, it reflects the family’s commitment to our brands.”
A young dad himself, Bryce led Ruiz Foods into social media―first creating a Facebook page for Tornados fans, and then a second page just for El Monterey lovers. “I quickly understood the potential of social media for our brands,” he says. “And looking back, I believe I was right. In 2010, our two brands received more than 2 billion impressions and drove more than 3.5 million brand engagements on Facebook.” As of press time, the Tornados page alone boasts 353,000 fans.
“[Social media] gives us a way to ‘activate’ our brands and engage our consumers. It gives us a platform where we can solicit flavor ideas, recipes and even have some fun with our fans. We also found that the average fan spends five to seven minutes interacting with the medium,” says Bryce.
Ruiz Foods continues to demonstrate its willingness to take its message to just about any media channel by introducing a media mix of NASCAR, television, in-store promotions, YouTube channels, advertising, Facebook and other social media channels to boost brand awareness and increase exposure.
For instance, in February, Ruiz Foods launched a three-month campaign for its El Monterey brand that included traditional 30-second commercials, which were themed after a comical telenovela (Spanish soap opera) and starred a fictional family (the El Montereys) bound by their love of El Monterey food. There were six total spots, each one featuring a comical “episode” from the El Monterey soap opera. Three of the spots aired on network and cable TV, whereas three aired as YouTube videos, scoring millions of impressions within three months.
At the store level, Ruiz Foods featured large floor graphics in the frozen aisle with an image of the telenovela family. On Facebook, the El Monterey Hacienda Challenge gave fans the opportunity to submit their own story line for the El Monterey telenovela. Fans received a chance to win prizes like digital cameras, t-shirts or a grand-prize trip to San Diego. The Hacienda Challenge generated more than 350,000 engagements and an additional 35% Facebook likes.
In addition, Ruiz Foods continue to use free-standing inserts as part of its customer support and consumer trial initiative for events such as the Super Bowl, Cinco de Mayo, back to school, and more.
“We’re not doing anything different from 10 years ago,” says Bryce. “There may be different [communication] media and different business cycles but the rest is the same. My last name is on the building―just like it is for dad, Kim and our other family members. We believe in this business. Today, it’s just a matter of how we’re going to go about growing it. And then, let’s go.”
Meeting mom at the finish line
In addition to the company’s noteworthy NASCAR consumers, Ruiz Foods also strives to meet mom (the other core grocery shopper) at the finish line. In doing so, in March, Ruiz Foods partnered with the National Sodium Reduction Initiative to help cut the salt by 20% over the next five years. To date, its entire line of El Monterey family-pack burritos and chimichangas are already in line with the 2012 guidelines. Ruiz Foods also established sodium-reduction plans for the remaining SKUs to better partner with the NSRI goals.
“The consumer typically grows with their ethnic food choices,” Bryce says. “For example, when they begin to enjoy Mexican, they will begin with the basic burrito. As they become familiar with Mexican flavors, spices, levels of heat, etc., that same consumer becomes both willing and interested in trying new and innovative flavor profiles and textures.”
Therefore, Ruiz Foods is driven to provide the best-of-the-best products with a healthier label.
“Our greatest opportunity is two-fold,” Bryce says. “One, to maintain our high level of quality in the products we currently offer our consumer and two, to continue to listen to what our consumer is looking for. Convenience? Value? New textures? New flavors?”
Whatever the consumer is in search of, Ruiz Foods has the drive, passion and ability to continue positioning itself in the fast lane.