Everyone said Mildred Reser made a great potato salad. When the family moved in 1949 from Kansas to Cornelius, Ore., she started selling it door to door. Then husband Earl sold it to butcher shops and grocery stores.
The turning point came in 1951 when they signed a contract to provide potato salad to all the Safeway stores in Oregon. Mrs. Reser's Salads outgrew the farmhouse kitchen, so Mildred and Earl moved to a larger building with production capacity in Cornelius.
Sixty years and $700 million or so later, Reser's Fine Foods Inc. has come a long way from the galvanized tub on a wood stove. But in many ways this fourth-generation family-owned company, now based in Beaverton, Ore., hearkens back to the farmhouse kitchen, with everyone involved in product development wanting to make the best potato salad (and 2,600 other SKUs) retailers and consumers can buy.
Reser's products still focus on consumer convenience and are category leaders in prepared salads, side dishes, dips, Mexican foods and specialty products. All are refrigerated products. Reser's markets to all 50 states, Canada, Mexico and Guam.
Al Reser grows the dream
During his senior year at Oregon State University, Al Reser, Mildred and Earl's son, with the help of OSU's food science department, invented a chip dip made from sour cream instead of cream cheese. It became an instant hit with consumers. At the age of 25, he became CEO of Reser's and moved the company to Beaverton.
"When Al came back from the service in the early 1960s, he worked in the plant all day making his mother's famous potato salad," says Chef Barbara Jordan, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who has led the company's R&D initiatives since 1989.
"Soon they expanded with different flavors of potato salad and macaroni salad. He sold to any grocery store he could drive to. He made the salad in the daytime and delivered it at night. So our roots are in what the French call Salade Composée, which are mixed salads made of many ingredients that marry together. We grew from there."
When Jordan joined the company in 1989, there were 25 varieties of potato salads. "We are at 178 today, so I like to joke that we make everybody's mother's potato salad," she says. "Grocery store buyers came in and said, 'My mom makes this great potato salad with mustard and eggs.' We'd replicate it, and he would stock it, and that's why we have so many varieties.
"We branched out into refrigerated desserts, and about 15 years ago we added refrigerated macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. Our mashed potatoes are probably better than what you can make at home."
Is it difficult for a graduate of Hyde Park, N.Y.-based the Culinary Institute of America to work in a plant setting? "As a chef, I was trained to add ingredients to taste rather than a recipe, but you can't run a plant that way," she responds. "I had to learn to measure and write down the exact amounts of ingredients used.
My food scientists were trained just the opposite – measure everything and write it down. I have become more exacting, and they have learned to loosen up a bit and 'just feel, dude!'"
Al Reser, who passed away in April, was inspirational. "Al had a real passion for foods and new ideas," she says. "He casually met a man from South America on a beach and was invited to his home for dinner. They conversed about food, and Al decided the next thing he absolutely had to add to our line was authentic, refrigerated Mexican foods. He developed a passion for Mexican food, and the idea appealed to his entrepreneurial spirit.
"Although it seems like an unusual way to get into burritos and tortillas, there is a thread that has to do with R&D and Reser's. It is about family and community. Everywhere you go in this company, what you see is passionate people having an idea and connecting with other passionate people. This man takes Al home to dinner, and the next thing you know they are great friends, and he becomes part of our family too. Everything touches everything else in this company; everything is relational."
Magic team formula
Jordan's R&D team started out as a two-man department and has grown to 14. "It's hard to pick out major players, because we have such a team approach," she says. "The department is organized into a business development section and an internal projects section. Section heads are major players, but so are the people who work for them. You get back to the whole relational concept. It would be hard to do anything without all of us because we are synergistic."
Sometimes. the R&D team develops sampling recipes for each other just for fun. Right now a retro theme has produced a sensational Tuna Wiggle.
"I always tell prospective employees, "If you accept this job, you're going to spend more of your waking time with us than your spouse,' " warns Jordan. "You need to be sure you want to be here, and we need to make sure you really belong here. If we make a bad decision, then we will all be unhappy.
"We have people out developing the business, and they were good at talking to customers. We also have people who are good at preparing bench-top samples, and enjoy doing that all day. Both are equally important, but you have to have one working hand in glove with the other."
Choosing everyone's strength is key. "When I'm hiring, I try to seek out people who want to do something in particular," says Jordan. "My project manager Satya Peterson loves what she does. She is one of those people that won't allow you to have a loose thread on your shirt; she has to get a scissors and snip it off, and probably tack it down with some Crazy Glue. Our food scientist Candy York, who runs our internal projects division, can't wait to find a scientific or processing solution to something. And Elise Johnston, who runs our business development section, you should hear her laugh. She does this with customers, and it's like magic; everybody relaxes and then they tell her what they really want, the most difficult thing to get from customers. Her laugh single-handedly works through all the agendas and gets down to what the real problem is and what the customer wants."