Renfro Foods stays hot in cooling economy

February 16, 2009

With people's jobs feeling suddenly less secure and retirement funds drying up, it might be a bit much to go out to a Tex-Mex dinner that could cost $9 or more per person. But many people are still more than willing to shell out a couple dollars for a jar of locally made salsa to eat at home on chips or use in various recipes.

If you've ever browsed the salsa aisle at a Fort Worth grocery store, it's likely you've run across a jar of Mrs. Renfro's salsa. The company, which was founded by George and Arthurine Renfro in their Fort Worth home in 1940, has evolved continuously through its long local history, and it's continuing to adapt as it adopts new products.

With more people cooking and eating at home to save money, Renfro hasn't been feeling the economic downturn the way some companies have, said Doug Renfro, president of Renfro Foods Inc.

"What I've been telling people is it's a terrible time to sell foie gras, but it's a great time to sell salsa," he said.

When the company started, it was centered on packaged spices and pepper sauces. It also sold syrup, jellies, preserves and hot sauce. Shortly after being incorporated in 1972, salsa became the hot new thing - literally - and the company grew tremendously.

Renfro still makes salsas and introduced three new ones in January: pineapple, pomegranate and tequila. The salsa industry is competitive, Doug Renfro said, and the company makes about 50,000 bottles to 60,000 bottles a day.

Minyard Food Stores Inc., which is headquartered in Coppell but has supermarkets throughout the Metroplex, is one of the many places internationally where a range of Mrs. Renfro's products are sold.

"Renfro products are very good and Minyard stores have carried them for many years," said Ron McDearmon, CEO of Minyard Food Stores. "Our top six sellers - in order of popularity - are: Mrs. Renfro's Green Salsa; Mrs. Renfro's Habañero Salsa; Mrs. Renfro's Roasted Salsa; Mrs. Renfro's Mild Chow Chow; Mrs. Renfro's Salsa Picante Hot; and Mrs. Renfro's Peach Salsa."

Sales are only up a small amount, Doug Renfro said, but that's still hugely positive given that the company recently has been dealing with increasingly high prices on many of its goods.

Bill Renfro, CEO of the company and one of George and Arthurine's sons, said the prices for bottle caps, for instance, have gone up about 25 percent. Doug Renfro added that corn prices have gone up about 55 percent because there's now a focus on using corn-based ethanol, tomato prices are up double-digit percentage points, and the price of raspberries (used in Raspberry Chipotle Salsa) tripled due to a bad crop.

"We've seen price increases like we've never seen before," Bill Renfro said.

The company does not change its ingredients or its recipes to make up for high prices, but Becky Renfro Borbolla, vice president (and daughter of Bill Renfro), said the company has looked for other ways to cut money. For example, fewer people may attend trade shows, or Renfro may skip certain shows altogether, to save money.

"Our Canadian trade show actually shut down [temporarily, in response to the economy] to save the vendors money," she said.

Since Renfro was started when the Great Depression was still on people's minds, the company's leaders have understood that economic changes are inevitable. The salsa industry doesn't have tons of room for growth, the way it did a few decades ago, but Doug Renfro said the company still focuses on getting new customers since there is a large degree of brand loyalty in the industry. As a result, the company tends to take a long-term view. 

"We're not managing for the quarter or even for the year," he said.

The company has not put off making necessary large-scale investments just because of the economy, said Jack Renfro, chief operating officer (and brother to Bill Renfro - and father to Doug Renfro).

"We just installed a new label machine and a new filler machine," he said.

The company also is continuing to invest in branching out. Doug Renfro said because ingredients are pricey, every potential new product is tested in a spreadsheet to see if it makes economic sense, but Renfro makes many private-label brands and is willing to expand. Areas for potential growth include things like Indian sauces and other products that aren't necessarily tomato and bean based, he said.

Renfro Foods still is very much a family-run business. James Renfro, vice president of operations is the fifth Renfro currently involved in leading the company, which has about 40 employees. Bill Renfro and Jack Renfro are the sons of George and Arthurine Renfro, the company's founders. Becky and James are the daughter and son of Bill, respectively, and Doug is Jack's son. They say they're involved because they want to be and they're willing to put in the hard work that's still necessary in a medium-sized company. They're also there to offer the Renfro guidance as the company continues to do more than just salsas.

"If you just say, 'We're a salsa maker,' you're dead in the water," Doug Renfro said.