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2015 R&D Team of the Year: Ruiz Foods

Inspired by traditional Mexican family recipes, the third-generation company relies on staff and customers for fresh ideas in hand-held and roller-grill specialties.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Ruiz FamilyRuiz Foods is a true American Dream story. In business since 1964, the company produces premium, authentically prepared frozen foods for distribution to retailers, convenience stores and club stores as well as through vending, industrial and foodservice channels. The third-generation, family-owned company has risen through the ranks to become the nation's largest producer of convenient frozen Mexican dishes (according to Nielsen). Inspired by family recipes brimming with Mexican flare, Ruiz today offers more than 200 frozen foods under the El Monterey and Tornados brand names.

The flagship El Monterey brand is a market leader within the frozen Mexican food category and a top brand of frozen Mexican food in the U.S. The Tornados brand, introduced eight years ago, is considered a best-selling roller-grill foodservice name.

Co-founded in 1964 by Fred Ruiz and his father, Louis, the company's first products were based on the recipes of Fred’s mom, Rose, and offered consumers exceptional value. Today, the R&D team embraces this legacy and applies it to all aspects of the innovation process "to continue raising the bar on taste and quality."

"Our goal is to make our food taste the way my mom cooked for us at home," Fred Ruiz has been quoted as saying. Originally, the small company prepared its specialties using a small mixer and Fred's mother’s recipes as inspiration. The food was then stored in a chest freezer in a 500-square-foot “warehouse” before Louis, who handled sales, took it out for delivery.

Fast-forward to 2015, and Fred, who is chairman emeritus, has a bit more help at the production plant, and has a staff of more than 2,500 team members. Kim Ruiz Beck, Fred’s elder daughter, is now chairman.

RoseCenterSquareThe privately held corporation is among the top 10 U.S. Hispanic-owned manufacturing companies in the U.S., and has received many accolades and recognitions. The 300,000-sq.-ft. corporate office and main manufacturing facility are located in Dinuba, Calif. The company also has a smaller plant in California and runs a recently expanded facility in Denison, Texas, and a recently acquired, renovated manufacturing facility in Florence, S.C. As the Florence plant goes into full production over the next several years, Ruiz Foods says it anticipates employing more than 500 workers there.

The Dinuba headquarters is also home to a research and development/culinary center called the Rose Ruiz Innovation Center. The center features a sensory science/testing center, test kitchens, a packaging innovation center, analytical and micro labs and a pilot plant for scale-up, allowing researchers to quickly develop more new products.

“Our expansion strategy included establishing a manufacturing facility on the East Coast,” says Rachel Cullen, president and CEO. “Our products are in high demand with significant growth on the East Coast."

Ruiz Foods strives to keep pace with changing consumer trends, preferences and concerns. To provide healthier food alternatives, the company has removed all trans fats from the El Monterey branded products and has been involved in the National Sodium Reduction Initiative, a public-private partnership between state and local health authorities and organizations and food manufacturers and restaurants, committed to reducing Americans' sodium intake.

Besides enchiladas, the processor generates more than 200 retail and foodservice stock-keeping units that now include chimichangas, taquitos, tamales, quesadillas, chile rellenos and a new line of hand-held breakfast burritos. "They have been a big hit," states Cullen, as the convenient line targets everyone on-the-go. That's a hot market category for Ruiz Foods, which continues to delight consumers with handy forms of familiar favorites.

Wrapped up in innovations

Staying on top of trends, packaging, product positioning and brand promotions, the Ruiz R&D team helps drive the company's growth, success and sales.

Ruiz Foods TeamKathleen Da Cunha, senior vice president of corporate strategy and R&D, says the team comprises 15 team members with diverse areas of scientific and culinary expertise. Based at the new Rose Ruiz Innovation Center, the team has disciplines spanning food science, bakery technology, package and process engineering, analytical chemistry, sensory science, regulatory and nutrition. And of course, there is also a certified research chef.

Innovation development is grounded in deep consumer and category insights, and is very team-based, Da Cunha says. "New product ideas can come from any function within the organization; be it R&D, marketing, sales, operations, or even from our customers. Our commitment to innovation began more than 50 years ago, when our co-founders, Fred Ruiz and his father, Louis, began making frozen enchiladas. They sold them in ‘mom-and-pop’ grocery stores."

In fact, today's flavor profiles continue to be influenced by Rose Ruiz's recipes. "The early products, such as tamales, burritos and chile rellenos, all had to meet Fred and Louis’ promise of quality, value and great taste," Da Cunha explains. "This commitment remains at the forefront of every product idea."

Initial ideas for new products are fully vetted with consumers in different settings, mainly to develop the concept and understand consumer needs, she says. Ideas with high degrees of potential then enter the development process, during which the R&D team creates a formula and a packaging structure. Cross-functional team meetings take place regularly, from concept to commercialization, to ensure a successful launch.

Because Ruiz Foods prides itself on being very nimble and quick to spot new trends, the R&D team has no one-size-fits-all approach to product development. Hence, for each initiative, the size of the opportunity, technical complexity and amount of risk dictate the development strategy.

"The members of the R&D team have the right combination of creative thinking and science to take different approaches to launching consumer-centric products," Da Cunha says. "Close-in line extension projects move very quickly from recipe development into consumer validation testing and launch. But for new product platforms and/or when new technologies are involved, the development process is more rigorous and entails multiple rounds of plant trials and consumer testing."

For such platforms, the team typically uses rapid prototyping with consumer feedback, she explains. "We believe we'll have a higher hit rate by listening to our customers and consumers. Product development usually starts by getting actual consumer feedback on rough prototypes, whereby consumers are exposed to an array of stimuli to identify elements that will delight them. With this initial consumer input, the food technologists start prototyping and conducting team cuttings and pilot trials."

Ruiz Foods QUESADILLASThe most promising product prototypes are next put through a quantitative consumer testing process that requires the prototypes to meet minimum hurdles for purchase interest and concept fulfillment.

The timing of these developments can vary greatly, Da Cunha mentions. For new retail products, once a concept has been identified, development and commercialization typically take 10-12 months, while a line extension can be created in only six months. Some foodservice innovations can go from concept to market even faster, because the packaging lead times are often shorter.

"But a new platform, which might require novel technology or a capital investment, can take two years or more," she says. "Over the past year, we have launched retail, foodservice and convenience store products and have extended our already successful El Monterey Breakfast Burrito line, launching a new Meat Lovers variety, as well as El Monterey Egg & Maple Sausage Breakfast Rollups, popular with kids."

El Monterey Chicken & Cheese Quesadillas have followed, as well as two new El Monterey eight-packs: Beef & Cheese Burritos and Beef, Bean & Cheese Chimichangas.

New convenience store items include El Monterey Breakfast Mini-Chimis and additional new flavors in the Tornados line.

"It's not enough for our products to just taste good; they have to taste great," Da Cunha adds. That's why Ruiz Foods continues to be a learning organization. "Consumers have a lot of choices. If we want them to consistently choose our products over others, we need to deliver preferred taste."

The R&D team factors in value for new products, which means providing the best quality at the lowest possible cost.

What else happens during the development process? "We need to be asking the right questions," she says. It's critical to find out what the product experience can be throughout the supply chain, as well as what kinds of situations consumers could have with the products, despite well-written preparation instructions.

"The more diligent we are at ensuring our products exceed consumers' expectations, the better," she says. "The more critically we think about every aspect of manufacturing, distribution and consumer behavior, the higher our chances are for success."

Da Cunha says the R&D team is currently hard at work developing more great-tasting snacks, breakfast items and a few new twists on burritos.