Frozen Foods Processor of the Year

On The Fast Track

New packaging, product positioning and brand promotion drive Ruiz Foods’ growth.

Driving new ideas at Ruiz Foods are (L-R) Bryce Ruiz, president & CEO; Fred Ruiz, co-founder and chairman emeritus; and Kim Ruiz Beck, chairman.


Snack attack. Proven snack a platform for Ruiz to try new flavor profiles.

Everyone needs a road trip from time    to time. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about two people, three, four … or even hundreds.

When NASCAR’s Nationwide and Sprint Cup series came to Los Angeles last October, officials at Ruiz Foods, Dinuba, Calif., put the word out. They invited all executives and employees for a road trip to see the events – and ended up taking a busload of nearly 350.

Why drive for hours … just to see more people driving for hours? It turns out Ruiz has teamed with Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) to sponsor SHR driver Ryan Newman. The 33-year-old Indiana native represents Ruiz Foods’ new retail snack brand, Tornados, in Sprint Cup competition. And for that one weekend at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway, Ruiz also sponsored Newman in a Nationwide series car featuring the company’s El Monterey brand.

In addition to the races, NASCAR treated Ruiz team members to hospitality events, garage tours and pace car lap activities. (A month later, approximately 250 team members at Ruiz Foods’ Denison, Texas, plant enjoyed the same NASCAR treatment in Dallas.)

Refrigerated & Frozen Foods visited Ruiz just a week after the California races. Back in Dinuba, family members said the event was well worth a five-hour, 250-mile drive south to Fontana from Dinuba (near Fresno).

“People struggle to understand the secret of our success and they ask me about it all the time,” says a smiling Fred Ruiz, co-founder and chairman emeritus. “We’re something of an anomaly as a family business. There’s just a chemistry involving the family, our executive team and our team members. We share information and do everything together.

“Just think. More than 300 team members got on a bus at 2 in the morning to do this [NASCAR trip.] For many, this was their first exposure to the NASCAR and after visiting the hospitality tent, touring the track and more, they had a great time and the full experience. It really created a team-building atmosphere.”

Fred’s father was company co-founder Louis Ruiz. Asked how Louis may have responded to such an event, Fred replies, “Ruiz Foods grew to surpass anything my dad ever thought it would be. The most important thing he talked about was that we build a brand. He also talked about investing in your business, automating and becoming a low-cost manufacturer. . .  If we could build a brand and do that, we could compete against anybody.”

NASCAR still was a young and relatively unknown sport in early 1960s when Louis and Fred decided to start producing and selling frozen Mexican foods to mom-and-pop grocery stores in the San Joaquin Valley.

Just as NASCAR has grown since then (now sanctioning more than 1,500 races at more than 100 tracks in 39 states and Canada), so too has Ruiz. From its first days of producing bean and cheese enchiladas and chili rellenos, 46-year-old Ruiz Foods now employs approximately 2,500 people who process more than 200 retail and foodservice items at three facilities in Dinuba and Tulare, Calif., and Denison (see “Inside the plant” feature, p. 40).

Refrigerated & Frozen Foods estimates that this third-generation company now boasts annual sales of as much as $450 million. Hispanic Business magazine ranked Ruiz as the sixth largest Hispanic-owned company in the United States and the largest in California.

A 2006 inductee into the industry’s “Frozen Food Hall of Fame,” Fred Ruiz since has handed the responsibilities of president and chief executive officer to his elder son, Bryce. His elder daughter, Kim Ruiz Beck, is chairman.

“My dad always said, ‘If you’re not growing, you’re dying,’” says Fred. “As a result, we were very opportunistic and growth oriented. Today, Bryce and Kim have embraced the Ruiz family legacy and are as driven as my dad and I ever were.

“I don’t exactly know when we became a national company but there is a different dimension now,” he adds. “Bryce is not limited by the past and I think that it’s an advantage. Sometimes the past can be a burden and be limiting in terms of your outlook.”

“I’ve inherited a sustainable business,” notes Bryce. “I don’t have the burden of asking whether we can simply make payroll and pay the light bill . . . Yet we’re working just as hard and with a sense of urgency. It’s just that we’re taking our time to be more selective and strategic about where and how we push the business.”

Ruiz Foods’ outlook is certainly bright entering calendar 2011. Officials cite Information Resources data to note that Ruiz leads the frozen Mexican foods category with the largest dollar growth of any of the top 10 brands during a 52-week tracking period ended Nov. 28, 2010. Moreover, officials say El Monterey is the dominant brand within the frozen Mexican category -- leading all burrito brands with a 10.5 percent dollar sales increase during the same 52-week period. Last but not least, Ruiz officials say Tornados snack sales have doubled since the product debut in 2005.

Still more facts and figures have Bryce Ruiz talking.

“We know that our [El Monterey brand’s] awareness is low – relative to other frozen food brands,” he says. “Yet we wanted to look at it in the context of all frozen prepared foods – taking away dairy, fruit and vegetables, etc. – to see how relevant we are.

“We have Information Resources consumer research that shows El Monterey is No. 11 among the top prepared food brands,” he says. “Moreover, of the top 20 frozen prepared foods brands, El Monterey is growing by 5.3 percent, which at the second fastest rate. That tells us there’s still a lot of opportunity and that El Monterey is still a new idea in most households. We’ve been at this for so many years and just didn’t realize that our brand means as much as it does.”

Behind the scenes, Bryce admits that he has learned so much more. A key moment? When corporate sales asked for advanced sales planning schedules (more than a year out), it resonated and prompted Ruiz Foods’ new leader to shift his mindset.

“Today, we’re looking out further,” says Bryce. “When you think more strategically, you can better utilize your funds. Although marketing and sales teams have not grown, we’re doing more and becoming more focused on our core. Our theme is, ‘Fewer. Bigger. Better.’ Let’s do fewer things, think bigger and then execute to a T.”

Recognizing that its retail and foodservice brands simply need a greater presence with customers – and more trial and exposure with consumers – Ruiz Foods channeled most of its 2010 spending to new packaging as well as brand advertising, promotion and social media activities.

Even Ruiz Foods’ biggest new product splash, the retail launch of Tornados snacks, did not involve much product development. The three-ounce, hand-held snack already has been a hit for six years at convenience stores, stadiums and other non-traditional foodservice venues (see “Less is more,” p. 36). For the record, Ruiz launched a six-item retail Tornados line in January 2010. A new 8.4-ounce retail box contains three servings and carries a suggested retail price of just $2.79.

Tornados give Ruiz more elbow room to branch out from Hispanic flavor combinations and into broader varieties. Retail Tornados flavors include Ranchero Beef & Cheese, Grilled Chicken & Cheese, Chicken Club, Southwest Chicken, Cheesy Pepper Jack and Cheesy Pepperoni.

And that was just the beginning. Ruiz came back in May with an even larger main line packaging shift that emphasizes multi-serve, snacking occasions.

“When we developed new packaging for El Monterey Flour and White Corn Taquitos, we switched from a box to a stand-up, re-sealable bag – and consumers went crazy for it,” says Mark Hannay, senior vice president of retail sales. “One after another, each focus group asked, ‘Why didn’t you do this earlier? Your products are extremely easy and convenient to heat and eat and, now your packaging is just as easy.’”

Those insights led Ruiz to repackage 12 different El Monterey retail products – everything from six-count tamales and quesadillas to 14- and 16-count taquitos and mini chimichangas. Ruiz also took the opportunity to upgrade all packaging graphics and photography for the first time.

“This takes all the complexity out for retailers,” says Hannay. “No longer will we have one-off items, such as tamales, in meat-style trays. Now we can bundle all of our El Monterey brand equity with a common look and common price points. This will give us greater presence across a full door, while it makes it easier for retailers to feature and display our products.”


Stand up and be counted. New resealable bags add snacking appeal, full-line presence.

Media maneuvers

Whereas Ruiz identifies NASCAR dads as its core c-store shopper, officials know they need to tell moms and kids about the new Tornados retail line. That led officials to develop the company’s first the multi-media promotional campaign – complete with in-store merchandising materials, social and digital media and 30-second TV ads (themed “Full Force Flavor. Full Force Fun.”) in spot metro markets.

“This was a case where – because you have family working this business – we allocated the extra funds,” says Bryce. “Although a national ad campaign was not in the plan, it reflects the family’s commitment to our brands.”

A young dad himself, Bryce, 35, actually led Ruiz Foods into social media – first creating a Facebook page for Tornados fans, and then a second page just for El Monterey.

“I quickly understood the potential of social media for our brands,” he says. “And looking back, I believe I was right. In 2010, our two brands received more than 2 billion impressions and drove more than 3.5 million brand engagements on Facebook.

“I love this medium,” he continues. “It gives us a way to ‘activate’ our brands and engage our consumers. It gives us a platform where we can solicit flavor ideas, recipes and even have some fun with our fans. We also found that the average fan spends five to seven minutes interacting with the medium.”

Ruiz used Facebook to launch as many as seven Tornados promotions last year. Although all the Facebook efforts generated gains in the fan base, most were designed to spur “active engagements,” officials say.

Ruiz notes that its most recent promotion was the first to run in tandem with TV and digital banner ads for “Full Force Flavor. Full Force Fun.” Running from September through November, 2010, the Facebook promotion increased fan base by nearly 100,000 with active engagements of approximately 900,000, officials say. Ruiz encouraged fans to enter and/or vote on “full forced” faces to win prizes from a prize vault.

Ruiz also was used Facebook to promote El Monterey. The company’s ongoing “uWin Instant Win Game” has both retail and Facebook components. The retail, store-level program features specially marked El Monterey products, which offer consumers the opportunity to win one of more than 10,000 prizes. Consumers also can complete an entry form on the brand’s Web site. This promotion runs through March 31, 2011.

Officials say the El Monterey “uWin Challenge” at Facebook ended Nov. 23, 2010, and generated more than 3 million impressions and more than 300,000 active engagements. It garnered nearly 28,000 new fans in just over 30 days.

Asked about her brother, Kim Ruiz Beck, smiles, “He’s more aggressive than me. Particularly when it’s come to marketing initiatives. These are thing we only dreamed about. Now, Bryce is finding ways to make them happen.”
Bryce, himself, puts it differently.

“We’re not doing anything different from 10 years ago. There may be different [communication] media and different business cycles but the rest is the same. My last name is on the building – just like it is for dad, Kim and our other family members. We believe in this business. Today, it’s just a matter of how we’re going to go about growing it. And then, let’s go!”

At a glance: Ruiz Foods

Offices: Dinuba, Calif.
Top execs: Fred Ruiz, co-founder, chairman emeritus; Kim Ruiz Beck, chairman; Bryce Ruiz, president, chief executive officer
Annual sales: $450 million*
Products: Approximately 200 frozen entrée, snack SKUs
Distribution channels: U.S. retail, convenience store and other foodservice markets.
Brands: El Monterey, Tornados
Web sites: www.elmonterey.com and www.mytornados.com
FYI: Hispanic Business magazine ranks Ruiz as the sixth largest Hispanic-owned company in the United States and the largest in California.
*Refrigerated & Frozen Foods estimate


Promotion drives c-store sales, Tornados brand message.

Less is more

More sales. More products. More SKUs. More promotions. Talk to any salesperson and you’d expect to hear that bigger is always better . . . right?

Not necessarily. Just ask Kimberli Carroll, Ruiz Foods’ vice president of foodservice sales and marketing.

“Although Ruiz has developed some new items … we’re focusing on our established Tornados line (a snack developed in 2005 especially for c-store roller grills),” she says. “We believe there are more growth opportunities – for us and for our customers – by providing the right product programs and merchandising tools to help customers sell more. We think that less is more.

“Our customers don’t need more complexity,” she continues. “Our biggest challenge simply involves executing to help customers create awareness and manage shrink. We’re also offering resources, such as planograms, to help them plan store merchandising and understand consumer traffic.”

Ruiz also supports customers by promoting Tornados. For starters, Ruiz offers as many as 16 flavor varieties to appeal to consumer tastes across all dayparts (including breakfast). Then Ruiz truly put the pedal to the metal when it inked a NASCAR sponsorship with Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in late 2009. Today, SHR driver Ryan Newman drives a Tornados car in NASCAR’s popular Sprint Cup series.

“We needed a big idea. We needed to own the roller grill with more than new flavors,” admits Bryce Ruiz, president and CEO. “NASCAR just fits. It was the right time to get into the sport and we did it with the right team. It allows us to better talk to that c-store dad who’s a NASCAR fan.”

To effectively “activate” the promotion, Ruiz last year tied its NASCAR sponsorship to a convenience store-level “Ride of a Lifetime” sweepstakes, accompanied by in-store merchandising programs. Carroll says store operators welcomed the program, which promises to be even bigger this year.

Meanwhile, Ruiz continues to look ahead. Every year, for example, it hosts a retailer roundtable during the National Association of Convenience Stores’ annual convention.

“Our customers are always looking for something new and we’re always listening to learn more about where they’re going and how we can provide the right tools and products,” says Carroll. “Even so, we always want to help them stabilize the grill area, which has built the business.”

Party with a purpose

Talk to Ruiz Foods officials and you learn the company’s definition of “family” extends well beyond its corporate walls and into its team members’ communities.

That led Ruiz to create an entirely different non-profit organization, Ruiz 4 Kids (R4K), two decades ago. And since 1990, R4K has raised more than $2 million to fund San Joaquin Valley area children’s programs.

“We are proud to support area non-profit organizations,” says Ruiz Chairman, Kim Ruiz Beck. “They work hard to serve the needs of area children and youth.”

Most recently, R4K raised $197,000 in a single event last November. A dinner, silent auction and dance – one of two annual fundraising efforts – drew more than 600 people to the Visalia (Calif.) Convention Center. When it was over, Ruiz 4 Kids portioned out all proceeds to the Boys and Girls Club of the Sequoias, CASA of Tulare County (Calif.), Family Services of Tulare County and the Visalia Police Activities League.

 “We couldn’t be more pleased with the results of our 2010 fall fundraiser when we recognize the funding cutbacks affecting organizations serving children,” says Ruiz Beck. “Although we see some ease in the economic crisis, it will take longer for non-profit organizations – particularly those depending on donors and grants – to recover.”

Ruiz team members hand roll freshly baked tortillas filled with chicken, cheese and Mexican spices for El Monterey Chicken and Cheese Taquitos.

Quick-change artists

Quick changeovers, new packaging lines help Ruiz Foods’ Dinuba, Calif., plant meet growth demands

By Bob Garrison

It’s 202 miles from Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive to Ruiz Foods, north over the foothills in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Likewise, Los Angeles and Dinuba are worlds apart in other ways. What the entertainment industry is to Los Angeles, the agriculture industry is to Ruiz Foods, which makes its home in Dinuba.

Even so, Brian Miller says there’s not much difference between trendy fashion and frozen foods.

“Every day, the complexity increases in our business. You can’t just sell the same box of macaroni and cheese,” says Miller, a 30-year food industry veteran and Ruiz Foods’ senior vice president of supply chain. “Consumers are quite different today and it’s almost as though we’ve become a restaurant. We’re developing new products all the time. Whether it’s out of boredom or something else, consumers demand more flavor and flair.”

Of course, new products are literally a big deal for Ruiz Foods. The company’s Dinuba plant spans 260,000 square feet, employs as many as 1,650 team members and processes as many as 200 distinct SKUs for retail, foodservice and club store channels.

Although this 20-year-old plant didn’t take on many new products last year, it dramatically retooled and reconfigured several packaging lines. That’s because Ruiz discontinued several bag-in-box packages and other formats while it converted as many as 12 different foods – everything from tamales to mini chimichangas and taquitos – to stand-up recloseable, zippered pouches.



Freshly made tortillas from the Ruiz bakery travel on cooling racks before being transported to the taquito line.

Many companies would have needed six to eight months to change production and packaging – yet we did it within 90 days,” notes Miller. “We’re definitely a ‘brand-driven’ facility with the same type of mindset and environment as a co-packer. We have to be flexible and oriented toward customer service. We’re going to deliver to our sales and marketing plans – no matter what.”

It helps to have a veteran workforce where 511 employees joined the company 10 years ago and another 144 have 20 years of tenure. Since it opened in Dinuba in 1990, (population 20,000), Ruiz has attracted hundreds of people within a 40-mile radius and often employed two generations in many team members’ families.

Miller says that kind of ongoing relationship has led to several noteworthy achievements in …

… employee safety. “Eight or nine years ago, repetitive motion activities put us in a high risk category for workers compensation,” notes Miller. “Then we developed a program involving job rotations, job qualification standards, preventative injury exercises and other disciplines so team members are doing various things throughout the week. Years ago, our injury index was 7 or 8 (injuries per man hour), which was comparable to the industry standard for a company our size. Today, we’re at an index rate of 1.5 and in our shipping area alone, we’ve accumulated more than 3,439 days with no lost-time accidents.”

… food safety. “We handle allergens and high-risk ingredients such as chicken, beef, pork, cheese, eggs and other items,” notes Miller. “Because of the high risks associated with adulteration or bacteria, we inspect at least 98 percent of all raw materials entering the plant. In 2010, we even exceeded that standard – even though we handle as many as 200 different product SKUs.

… first-time quality. “We have a quarterly bonus program with three parameters,” says Miller. “Our goals are 98 percent first-time quality, schedule attainment of 95 percent or better and no equipment damage inflicted by team members. We’re giving more [equipment upkeep] ownership to team members and believe in a system where 1,600 peers help each other achieve success.

“Last year, our factory’s average hit 99.5 percent for product ‘right first time.’ We also review first-time quality against a consumer complaints measure. For a factory our size – per millions of items produced – the industry average is five or six pieces per million (drawing complaints). Our goal was 1.3 eaches per million and we achieved just one per million.”

El Monterey Chicken and Cheese Taquito recloseable bags are sealed during the packaging process.

"Fresh-frozen" process

To visit Ruiz Foods’ Dinuba plant is to see the operation treat taquitos the same way a frozen vegetable plant handles beans.

“We are 100-percent self sufficient,” Miller notes. “This includes our own flour delivery system and a complete fresh tortilla bakery to how we blend our own spices and prepare all of our fillings on the factory floor within just a few hours of freezing. Even though our products are frozen, we ensure that each is ‘fresh-frozen’ so when a consumer prepares it, it tastes as though it’s been cooked for the first time.”

Here’s a look at how Ruiz prepares chicken and cheese taquitos.

Ingredient preparation: In the case of first-shift production, pre-batch kitchen team members arrive at midnight to remove cheese and chicken form shipping boxes. Used with four days, these ingredients arrive at the cold mix room and are held at 40ºF to ensure food safety and proper mixing consistency.

Following computerized formula print-outs, workers then add water, spices, green chilies and other vegetables. Once the mixture reaches proper consistency, it’s dumped into a mobile stainless steel tote. Totes are staged in a chilled holding area (and sampled by QA technicians) before use on the production room floor.

Tortilla baking: Two outside flour silos feed flour (using an air conveyance system) into Ruiz Foods’ plant on a batch-volume basis. Pre-set amounts of flour and metered water are released into one of four large, upright mixers. After it’s created, Ruiz transfers the dough to proprietary tortilla equipment. Once formed and cut, tortillas travel onward through a continuous oven, which bakes them in just seconds before they exit at the other end. Wire conveyors then allow the tortillas to cool slightly before employees remove, stack and stage them for subsequent use on the line.

Process filling: Team members transfer filling mixtures into filling machines positioned beside each filling line. Once tortillas are placed on the production belt conveyor, they receive filling, are quickly folded and rolled (this process is proprietary).

Process frying & freezing: Rolled, filled tortillas pass into a continuous fryer, which cooks them for approximately 30 seconds. Although it’s only a matter of a few feet, workers check the newly created (now golden brown) before they travel into a spiral freezer.

Packaging & palletizing: Taquitos travel upward and exit the freezer at Dinuba’s second-story packaging room. Here, Ruiz packs them in new stand-up, recloseable pouches; applies code date registration and feeds them to automated casepacking lines. Ruiz also adds its own outer case labels to track product in the plant’s adjacent storage freezer.

Even as pallet loads ship out to Ruiz Foods’ third-party distribution network, Miller says he and Dinuba team members remain focused on the next load to come.

“We always challenge ourselves to come up with new ideas,” he says. “Our supply chain goal is to be the industry’s leader and ensure the best experience for any consumer buying frozen Mexican foods and flavorful frozen snacks.”


At a glance: Ruiz Foods

Address: 501 S. Alta Ave., Dinuba, Calif. 93618
Top operations exec: Brian Miller, senior vice president of supply chain
Products: Approximately 200 SKUs of frozen entrees, hand-held entrees and snacks for all distribution channels.
Team members: 1,650
Facility
Acres: 42 acres (includes corporate offices)
Size: 260,000 square feet (from raw materials warehousing, tortilla bakery, production and finished goods storage)
Production lines: 6
Packaging lines: 10
Schedule: 24-hours, six days a week with 14.5 hours to 16.5 hours of production alternating with sanitation, preventive maintenance and food safety activities
FYI: Ruiz has additional facilities in Tulare, Calif., and Denison, Texas


RUIZ CELEBRATES FIVE YEARS IN DENISON

Some birthday parties include a trip to the local go-cart track. Then, again, they do everything bigger in Texas. So how about a birthday celebration including a VIP pass to a national NASCAR event?

Ruiz Foods celebrated its fifth year in Denison, Texas, (north of Dallas) last October with quite a birthday bash. It featured an in-plant luncheon, speeches and a VIP trip for all interested employees to NASCAR’s Texas Motor Speedway. There, Ruiz Denison’s 100 employees could cheer on the company’s own Tornados Sprint Cup car, driven by Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman.

Having led the Denison start-up for Ruiz Foods, Brian Miller is proud of the operation’s achievements.
“This area has seen many large processors come and go and when we first arrived, most employees viewed us as just another big conglomerate,” he says. “Even so, we tried to explain that Ruiz is a strong, growing family company, one where they officials still try to call each team member by name.

“It was a tough first year and people even reacted with disbelief when we tried to put in our first performance raise,” he adds. “We’ve since had pay increases during each of the last three years and those [announcements] are met with applause and appreciation. And what used to be a tough working environment has completely changed. In fact, we are proud to say we have 62 team members who have been with us all five years.”

DINUBA'S 2011 "TO-DO" LIST

- Streamline product handling / movement: “Our products require lots of material handling because we don’t believe in “pump-in-place” fillings,” says Miller. “We emphasize [ingredient] piece integrity, which is one way we differentiate ourselves with high quality. Still, we need to find ways to streamline product movement with less handling.”

- Changeovers: Miller says each Ruiz production line is flexible enough to process as many as six to eight different items. Even so, one goal is make changeovers even faster, simpler and “more effective” – with less waste and higher productivity.

- Continuous improvement: Cross-functional employee teams will review Dinuba operations for process improvements. Miller says the goal is to identify more proactive cases where Ruiz can prevent a potential problem – instead of later reacting to that issue.

- Plan for more new product, packaging lines: Miller says Ruiz Foods’ successful transition to stand-up pouch has officials considering even more new product and package applications – without expanding Dinuba’s existing factory footprint.

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