"Innovation is what retailers are looking for, so we try to build that into our whole business. We build teams around our key customers, with their own sales, marketing, logistic and R&D support. That's really important. There are so many changes at the retail level, so it's not uncommon for us to have a new buyer with limited experience. It becomes our responsibility to educate them about our products so they can be successful. We want our customers to look at us as part of the solution, not a problem."
Some 20 cents of every dollar spent on Mexican frozen food is spent on El Monterey products, according to Information Resources Inc. Despite this success, the company also strives to be an efficient, low-cost manufacturer.
Ruiz's strategy for growth might include an acquisition, and that's more likely to happen under the next generation of family leadership -- which started 2005 when his elder daughter, Kim Ruiz Beck, was named vice chairman. That transition continued last year with the promotion of his son Bryce to president and COO.
"We have many ideas for new products and have hired a new marketing person to strengthen that side of our business," he says. "The Go Go Taquito, a product developed specifically for 7-Eleven, and the El Monterey Tornado are the result of our new product innovation initiative and serve the consumer's increasing desire for quality products that are hot-to-go." A rolled tortilla dipped in a seasoned batter and stuffed with savory meats and real cheeses, Tornados have given new life to roller grill in c-stores, movie theatres and other gran-and-go outlets.
Ruiz serves on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Healthy California Food Initiative Committee. Early in 2006, Ruiz announced the removal of trans fats from all its El Monterey brand products. "It's the responsibility of food companies to make our products healthier, and we are taking that very seriously," he says. "Can we take additives out? We're working with vendors to see if they are necessary. There's a new consumer awareness that all processors have to be sensitive to, and we need to respond to these issues.
"I think the most important thing is doing the right thing for our family, customers, and business," Ruiz says about his philosophy of life. "Hard work, honesty, sharing, fairness and communication are keys.
"It's sometimes a little painful to be a Latino because of immigration issues. Most of our employees are Latino; they work very hard, add a lot of value and contribute to the U.S. economy. Border issues are the responsibility of government. I try to be a role model, give them opportunities, improve their education by helping them get their GEDs and college scholarships, improve their quality of life and provide good healthcare programs."
Ruiz Foods has a legacy of community involvement, and Fred Ruiz is involved with the University of California Board of Regents, Institute for Family Business, California Chamber of Commerce, Ruiz 4 Kids, and others. "There are great needs out there, and making a difference in people's lives is important," he says. "Saying no is really hard."
Piecing together a $515 million company
Gerald Shreiber - J&J Snack Foods
Gerald Shreiber sold his machine parts business and went to bankruptcy court in 1971 looking for a new opportunity. "I found this little soft pretzel company in the throes of bankruptcy proceedings," he recalls. "It had old, tired equipment, eight employees and $400,000 in sales, but more heart than you could measure."
For $72,100 he got J&J Soft Pretzel Co. Thirty-five years later, J&J Snack Foods Corp., Pennsauken, N.J., is a $515 million processor and marketer of soft pretzels, frozen juice bars and frozen beverages in both retail and foodservice. The company has enjoyed 35 straight years of growth in both sales and profitability, has a listing on NASDAQ's over-the-counter stock exchange and was named one of the 200 Best Small Companies in America by Forbes magazine for the fourth year in a row (and six times overall).
"The [bankruptcy] judge wanted to know what I would name the company," Shreiber says. "I told him National Snack Foods, but after I wrote out 'NSF,' I realized that's what was stamped on bounced checks for 'not sufficient funds.' That was not a good way to start, so I kept J&J, figuring I would change it later. But later never came."
A self-described "street kid," Shreiber now lives on a farm with his family, six dogs, eight horses and some goats. "I don't have a country club membership, but one of the privileges I have as CEO, founder and controller of the company is I can bring my dog Scout to work," he says. "Some call me eccentric, and one critic told me I treat dogs like people and people like dogs. Naturally, I disagree with that assessment. I wear my feelings on my sleeve, and it's not hard to tell where I come from and what I stand for."
Shreiber, the eldest of four children, used to get up at 4:30 in the morning to work in his father's produce store before school. "My father was a hard worker and taught us a good work ethic and values," says Shreiber. "He taught us that pride and discipline comes from hard work, and to not be afraid to do whatever is necessary to succeed."
From a single product category -- soft pretzels sold in the Philadelphia and south New Jersey areas -- J&J Snack Foods today covers the whole country and beyond with many products. Soft pretzels remain at the forefront, including a variety under the Superpretzel brand, PretzelFils (stuffed soft pretzel sticks), Texas Twist, Baker's Best, Gourmet Twists, topped soft pretzels and CinnaBon (a trademark of CinnaBon Inc.) CinnaPretzels.