Central Valley Family Creates Legacy Through Frozen Food Factory
Fred Ruiz and his mother Rosie in an early publicity still. (Courtesy of Ruiz Foods)
Recently I visited the Central Valley town of Dinuba and went into a factory, a kind of factory I’d never seen. Before the big wigs let me in, they suited me up in safety gear. I was with company chair Kim Ruiz Beck.
“We are putting gloves on because we have fingernail polish on our nails, and I have a wedding ring I can’t get off my finger,” she explained.
There was more.
“That’s a hair net to cover your hair. Everything has to be totally tucked in.”
They’re so strict about the hair net that even George W. Bush wasn’t let into the factory without one. Ruiz Beck said her father, company co-founder Fred Ruiz, told her the president would be making a visit to the plant.
“But he won’t wear a hairnet. We’re like, ‘Are you kidding? All our customers will watch the president on TV at our plant!’”
So, what happened?
“He didn’t tour the plant, because we couldn’t make an exception,” said Ruiz Beck. Instead, the company built a glass wall, so the president could see the factory in operation, but not risk the bad optics.
All these measures are to protect the product the factory turns out: frozen burritos, the product you see in every convenience store, college dorms, hundreds of school cafeterias, and thousands of family freezers around the country.
The Dinuba facility I visited is just one of the plants owned by Ruiz Foods, the largest manufacturers of frozen burritos -- in fact all frozen Mexican food -- in the country. And this factory, it’s like the Willy Wonka of Mexican food.
The company won’t let me say much about what goes on in the factory -- it’s all a proprietary process -- but what I can say is that I saw thousands of burritos, quesadillas, and taquitos, most of which will be sold under the El Monterey brand.
Over 1,600 people work here, and many fold or roll products by hand. Still other products are folded, incredibly, by machine before heading obediently down what look like miles of conveyor belts moving toward a spiral freezer.
After lunch with a handful of family members, company co-founder Fred Ruiz told me that the family is originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, but fled during the Mexican Revolution, when his father was just a boy.
“Pancho Villa was basically taking over farms and businesses,” and the Ruiz family had land. “It wasn’t safe to live,” he said. “My dad remembers everybody being piled into this car in the middle of the night and there was lots of guns and bombs going off.”
They settled in Los Angeles. Fred Ruiz says his dad Louis was a born entrepreneur, selling feather dusters, then clothing door to door. In the 1950s, the family moved to Tulare County, where Louis Ruiz and his brothers started a tortilla business.
“And I think what my Dad realized at the time is there were opportunities to sell Mexican food in the San Joaquin Valley.”
To get some historical context, I decided to talk to author Gustavo Arellano who wrote the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
He said, the flour tortilla that defines a burrito is a northern Mexican staple.
“The urban legend is that the first people who created the dish that we now called 'burritos' were miners,” he explained, people who worked in copper mines between Sonora, Mexico and Arizona.
They would would wrap all their food in big flour tortillas, and ride donkeys or burros down into the mines.
“So they called these ‘burritos,’ little burros,” said Arellano.
Arellano explained, burritos really entered the U.S. in the 1940s during the bracero program, when the U.S. and Mexico agreed to bring tens of thousands of Mexican agricultural workers into the country.
“As part of the agreement, the American farmers who participated in this program had to give workers Mexican food. Of course they weren’t going to give them moles and complicated dishes,” he said.
U.S. farmers knew beans, rice, and the northern Mexican flour tortillas, but most of the braceros came from central and southern Mexico, where they ate corn tortillas.
“You see some of these oral histories, these braceros said they hated burritos," said Arellano. "They’re already far from home, and now they get this approximation of Mexican food?”
Eventually, the burrito entered the mainstream, starting with Taco Bell and Del Taco in the 60s, and Chipotle in the 90s. But Mexican food has been in American grocery stores much longer.
“You started getting canned tamales in the late 1890s,” Arellano said, followed by canned rice, beans, and chili sauce.
Arellano continues, “Starting in the 1930s you have a man named George Ashley who starts putting tortillas in a can.”
Not all, but most of these food producers were white, and most of their customers were white people who lived near Mexican Americans, and their food.
“Once Americans taste Mexican food they need it, and it becomes a part of their life and they’re going to try to replicate it at home one way or another,” said Arellano.
That’s the environment in which Louis and Fred Ruiz started their business in the 1960s. They had a primed customer base in the racially diverse Central Valley, and the perfect muse: mom.
“I loved her cheese enchiladas,” said Fred Ruiz. “I loved her tostadas, her tamales. Our flavor profiles are modeled after the way my Mom made Mexican food at home when I was growing up.”
While Fred and his dad developed recipes for their first products, his mom worked at a shoe store in downtown Tulare.
“I would be working on some sauce and it just didn’t taste right,” remembered Ruiz. “So I would put it in a little dish, and I’d drive over to the store. I’m there, I’ve got sauce all over my t-shirt, I smelled like an enchilada, and I’d say, ‘Mom, taste this.’ And then she would tell me, it just needed a little more oregano, a little more garlic.”
In fact, the test kitchen is still called Rosie’s Culinary Center.
Kim Ruiz Beck explained that her grandfather Louis served as both delivery man and sales guy.
“He’d drive the truck, pull in, deliver all the product in the back of the grocery store. And then he would drive around the front, and he would change into a suit,” she said, and meet with the manager to try to make more sales.
Ruiz Foods grew to be a top Latino-owned business, but Fred Ruiz and his dad started in 1964, before major advances in civil rights.
“There were some challenges, just growing up as a kid being Mexican,” Ruiz remembered. “I asked this girl if she’d go on a date one time and she said no she couldn’t, her Dad wouldn’t let her date Mexicans.”
And in business? Ruiz didn’t want to belabor the point, but he admitted, “There were some challenges we had to overcome. Some people didn’t believe that we were going to grow our business.”
But Kim Ruiz Beck said by the 1980s, a new piece of technology transformed the business: the microwave.
“Every home has a microwave. That really is the key to our product success,” she said.
Ruiz Foods started growing into the multi-million-dollar-a-year business it is today. The company, and the family, have a lot of influence. Fred Ruiz showed me a photograph taken at the White House Rose Garden, when he and his father received the United States Small Business Persons of the Year Award, presented by President Ronald Reagan.
Fred served a 12-year stint on the UC Board of Regents. Among other philanthropy, the company recently pledged $1 million to the Fresno State Craig School of Business.
For the company to stay on top, the family told me they’ve had to innovate, adding breakfast items, fusion foods, and something called Tornados. They’re like flautas or taquitos, developed specifically to fit on convenience store roller grills, the ones that usually hold hot dogs. Despite all those new products, the company told me their top retail product is still a bag of eight frozen burritos.
Kim Ruiz Beck started working at her family’s company 40 years ago.
“My whole life, this is all I know,” she joked. “All I know is burritos!”
When I asked why she joined the family business, she got emotional.
“This is all I ever wanted. I’m so proud of my Dad and my grandpa. I just wanted to be a part of this business,” she said, choking back tears. “I love this business. I love what they’ve created, I love what we created in the community.”
And, she said, she loves knowing the company’s reaching so many people through food.
At a town park a mile away, I asked a group of teenagers on skateboards about Ruiz Foods. They’ve got friends and family who work at the factory, and said, though they prefer homemade Mexican food, they eat El Monterey burritos for convenience and the low price tag. An eight-pack of bean and cheese burritos costs under $4. Compare that to other convenience store fare, they said.
“A bag of chips is $1.69 and a soda’s a dollar, so it’s like $3.”
One boy said, “I never ate Ruiz Foods,” but his friend quickly corrected him.
“Yes you have, bro, they package the blue burritos, El Monte burritos.” They all agree their favorite is the chile verde.
What was clear, talking to these guys basically in the shadow of the Ruiz Foods factory, is that their products are in a lot of our lives, whether we know it or not.