Keeping it in the Family
By Deborah Cassell

Three generations have made Mi Rancho what it is today — a high-volume producer of corn and flour tortillas and chips for foodservice customers worldwide. Someday, company president Manuel Berber’s two sons will continue the tradition his family has kept for more than 50 years.
“I need a couple phone books!” jokes Manuel Berber as he poses next to his wife and son — the latter hovering over him by one or two inches. Andrew, 20, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, laughs. Someone fetches the requested directory and places it underfoot so that Berber can heighten himself in the photo being taken of his family, the owners of Mi Rancho, San Leandro, Calif.
As heir to the Mi Rancho throne, Andrew has reason to stand tall. He and his 18-year-old brother are next in line to run the business his grandfather and great-grandfather acquired in 1954, 15 years after it was founded. Then an ethnic grocer that sold Mexican chocolate and chilies, among other goods, Mi Rancho has grown to become a major producer of corn and flour tortillas and chips, serving foodservice providers both nationwide and overseas.
Today, the company’s goals include catering to customers through new products such as its Healthy Mex line, maintaining a high-tech plant, branding its product … and keeping Mi Rancho in the family.
“I was born here, I was raised here, my roots are here,” Berber says. “I want the fourth generation to take over.”
In the Beginning
Ask anyone in the East Bay about Mi Rancho, Berber says, and they’ll remember the 15,000-sq.-ft. Oakland store — a former Southern Pacific passenger depot — where customers once came to purchase fresh masa. In 1939, it was the only Mexican grocer around. But as others flooded downtown and began to open in the suburbs, business suffered.
Mi Rancho braved the challenge by opening a deli, where it served tacos, enchiladas and other ethnic foods. Soon, workers filled the facility, making some 900 dozen tortillas a day for loyal shoppers.
As an increasing number of Mexican restaurants opened, interest in tortillas escalated, so much so that in the mid-‘90s, the business expanded its reach and began developing daily routes that went beyond the Bay area. When it found its first customer in nearby Marin County, Calif., Berber notes, he and his father, Robert, had to get out a map. Each man waited for the other to find the destination, which seemed completely foreign, despite its close proximity. It was a slapstick moment.
“I remember that conversation with my dad,” Berber says. “It was hilarious.”
As Mi Rancho was able to produce more products, demand grew even greater, he notes. As a result, in 1996, the company opened an additional 25,000-sq.-ft. building that housed two manufacturing facilities. It outgrew the second within four years and moved to its now 100,000-sq.-ft. location in 1999.
The rest is, as they say, tortilla history.
Marketing, Then and Now
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Berber recalls field trips local schools took to Mi Rancho. Students toured the plant, where they were served fresh, buttered tortillas.
“They loved it,” Berber says. In this early form of marketing, the company sent each child away with a pack of tortillas. Kids went home and told their parents …. and larger groups started visiting the plant.
In some ways, Mi Rancho’s marketing tactics haven’t changed much. The company still touts its tortillas one bag at a time.
Unlike at retail, when it comes to foodservice, branding is hard to do, Berber says. Nevertheless, Mi Rancho is determined to make inroads in this area.To that end, it recently started putting its logo on boxes and bags for name recognition. While there’s a cost associated with this decision, Berber says, and “the return isn’t that immediate,” it’s worth it … and it’s working.
In fact, “if we don’t put our logo on a bag, the customer calls and says, ‘Hey, this isn’t Mi Rancho,’” notes Ken Sanchez, vice president of sales and marketing.
As a means of further branding the product — and because dimensions confuse customers — Mi Rancho began titling its tortillas rather than just labeling them by size. For example, Taqueria is 5 in. and Gigante is 14 in. In the future, Mi Rancho will include nutrition and ingredient information on all bags, Sanchez adds.
Berber and Sanchez always are thinking of ways to diversify the brand. Most new products are dictated by the end user, triggering other ideas. For example, last year, Mi Rancho introduced a line of quesadillas.
“Frozen foods is one big avenue for growth,” Berber says.
Before putting its product out there, Mi Rancho runs it by a special focus group: its 150 employees, who take pride in their work.
“We serve them and ask, ‘What do you think?’” Berber says.
Foodservice operators must think Mi Rancho is doing something right. The brand serves customers in 40 states and prides itself on doing everything it can for the end user.
“We’re big enough to supply any national account,” Sanchez says, but small enough to work with the local market. “We have a big presence in Asia,” he adds.
Whether domestic or abroad, restaurants all want something different, Berber explains. There are 100 or so different types of weight, size and blend, and Mi Rancho is equipped to produce them all.
“As you grow, you cannot have a million SKUs,” he says.
However, without skipping a note, Sanchez adds, “We do have a zillion flavors, sizes and looks.”
A Healthy Taste
One look that’s working for Mi Rancho is its new Healthy Mex line.
When no- and low-fat tortillas came on the scene several years ago, the focus on taste was forgotten.
“You might as well have put a piece of cardboard in a bag,” Berber says.
Today, light tortillas have all the flavor of regular varieties, due largely to changes in fats and oils over the last 15 years.
Mi Rancho’s all-natural and organic Healthy Mex line answers the call for better-for-you tortillas that still taste good. However, demand for organic at the foodservice level remains low, especially since there’s a cost associated with the product, Sanchez says. There’s an expense not only to producing the tortillas, but also to storing organic ingredients separately and getting certified by organizations such as Quality Assurance International, whose seal of approval Mi Rancho carries.
A Common Carrier
Organic might not yet be common at the foodservice level, but the tortilla certainly is, so much so that some people consider it a commodity item, Sanchez says. We want to give it added value, he notes.
Although corn tortillas still make up more of Mi Ranchos’ business, flour tortillas really started taking off once restaurants embraced the burrito and other wraps, which are known for their variety of colors and flavors, and are especially popular with kids, who “are dictating what parents eat,” Berber says. Consumers can even find quesadillas on steakhouse menus, he points out.
Regardless of variety, the tortilla is “a great carrier” that’s selling well in all restaurants, Sanchez asserts.
A Family of Workers
It comes as little surprise that a business with such a rich history as Mi Rancho employs many longstanding workers.
According to Berber, “Several people here have more than 20 years with the company.” He describes one woman, dubbed “Mama Rosa,” who used to grind corn by hand and retired from Mi Rancho at the age of 85.
“It’s a family atmosphere,” Sanchez notes.
In such an environment, titles mean little, according to Berber and Sanchez, who both have been known to fill in when a delivery driver is out for the day.
“We’re lean and mean,” says Sanchez, who’s been with the company for two years. “Manuel’s very involved,” he adds. “He grew up making the product.”
And you can tell what that product, as well as the Mi Rancho history and brand, means to Berber when you see him with his wife and son. You also can tell the true secret of his business’s success, and that’s family. SF&WB
At A Glance
Company: Berber Foods Manufacturing, doing business as Mi Rancho
Founded: 1939
Headquarters/Plant Location:  San Leandro, Calif.
Plant Size: 100,000 sq. ft.
No. of Shifts: Three
No. of Employees: 150+
Products: Corn and flour tortillas, fried and un-fried tortilla chips, frozen Hispanic foods (quesadillas)
Distribution: Regional, national andinternational
Brands: Mi Rancho
Web site:

Founder: Robert Berber
President: Manuel Berber
Treasurer: Carol Berber
VP of Operations: Joe Santana
VP of Sales & Marketing: Ken Sanchez