Ricos: It’s the big cheese of the nacho industry

For some, it’s an indulgent snack. For others, it’s a walk down memory lane. But for one family-owned company, it’s liquid gold.

San Antonio-based Ricos Products Co. has created a snack-food empire that has been around for more than a century. Although the firm offers myriad snacks, it was its cheese sauce, a gooey concoction with a yellowish hue, that catapulted the business from hometown favorite to global player.

“We’ve come this far because of that cheese,” said Tony Liberto, president of Ricos. “The nacho itself is what got us here today.”

The company got its start in 1890 when Liberto’s great grandfather, a Sicilian immigrant, opened a store in Beaumont that sold Italian imports such as olives, spices and coffee. In 1909, he moved his family to the Alamo City, opening a new shop in the downtown area. But it wasn’t until the company launched the concession nacho in 1974 at a Texas Rangers’ baseball game that business began to boom.

Although there was some initial pushback from vendors who were worried that the spicy snack would hurt other products’ sales, it amassed a following. Howard Cosell and the Monday Night Football crew touted the snack live during a game and movie theaters in the Dallas area began featuring the nachos.

From there, the snack was featured at more sporting events and theaters, and people were more tempted than ever to consume the trifecta of cheese sauce, tortilla chips and jalapeños.

Liberto views the nachos as something of a gateway food.

“After you finish a plate of nachos with jalapeños, I challenge anybody not to put something else in their mouth, be it a beer, soda, or it may be a hot dog, because that spice is growing in your mouth. And if all they have is a napkin, they may pick up the napkin and start eating it,” he said.

More than three decades later, it’s the nacho cheese sauce that’s the company’s headliner. So much so that Ricos sells 54 million pounds of the condiment annually, Liberto said. That’s enough to coat the city of Beaumont, which is about 82 square miles.

Cheese sauce sales dwarf that of the company’s other products. In the 52 weeks ending Jan. 22, Ricos sold nearly $11 million worth of cheese sauce to supermarkets, drugstores, convenience stores and mass-market retailers, according to a study from Symphony IRI Group.

The figure doesn’t include revenue from concessions or Wal-Mart, but the sales are about four times higher than salsa, the next most popular item, the study shows.

Before the firm sold its distribution company five years ago, it raked in about $100 million annually. Now, revenues are at about $80 million but the company is seeing steady double-digit growth each year, Liberto said.

At sporting events, it’s almost impossible not to spot someone who is munching on the cheesy delight. At Spurs games, masses of people line up to buy munchies, and most of the time, they pick Ricos snacks.

The company’s logo — a yellow cheese droplet gleefully licking its lips — is hard to miss on bags of popcorn, tortilla chips, jalapeños and peanuts, products that are prominently displayed at most concession stands.

For Aramark, the distributor that handles many of the concessions at the AT&T Center, it’s Ricos nachos that are the biggest seller. It’s estimated that one out of every 22 people buys nachos there, said Tim Witkowski, general manager for Aramark at the AT&T Center. Each year, the company sells about 70,000 trays of nachos at the center. The demand is so great in South Texas, that selling the nachos and the brand is a must.

“Here, nachos are king,” he said.

Just before the start of a recent Spurs game, newlyweds Alejandro and Belinda Saenz shared a tray of Ricos nachos as they watched the pregame shoot around. Besides enjoying the cheesy snack, both recalled memories associated with the food. Belinda remembered her addiction to Ricos nachos while she was pregnant with her daughter.

“I just had to have them,” she said. “The cheese is my favorite. It’s not runny, and it’s not too thick. It’s perfect.”

While she likes nachos, her favorite way to enjoy the cheese sauce is to dip popcorn into the yellow goodness, she said.

While Belinda was occupied discussing her affection for the snack, her husband finished the nachos. And although his fingers were full of cheese sauce, the mess didn’t bother him.

“The messier the better,” he said while licking the cheese from his fingers.

Eluterio Aguilar, who also was at the game, said eating Ricos nachos took him back to his childhood when consuming the snack was almost a pastime in itself. As a nacho veteran, he did offer one piece of advice to a friend who was about to eat a bowl of Ricos Grande nachos: “Take a bunch of napkins,” said the enlisted airman who’s stationed Randolph AFB.

For others, it’s the memories that the snack conjures that’s the best part.

Garrett Heath is reminded of his high school days in Lubbock, sitting in the bleachers with close friends at the football game.

“The Ricos cheese on the nachos immediately takes you back to the days of lettermen’s jackets and marching band. It makes you nostalgic,” said Heath, co-founder of San Antonio-based SnappTours, a company that provides mobile and virtual museum tours. “You think of all the good times at the games with your friends. That’s probably the big reason why I have the connection to it. It’s not high cuisine, but it tastes good.”

And not just in the U.S.

For decades, the company’s products have been regular sightings at ballgames and movie theaters around the world, from the crowded streets of Hong Kong to the deserts sands of Dubai. Plus, its products can be found on selves at various stores such as H-E-B, Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart.

But the company’s widespread fame hasn’t gone to its head. San Antonio always will be home for the firm, and it is positioned to stay in the family. Liberto said he’s focused on long-term growth while getting the next generation ready to take the reins.

“I’m not just looking five years out. I’m looking 25 years out. I want to see this business stick around so that the next generation can get involved,” he said.

And the next generation already is involved. Liberto’s niece, Megan Petri, is the fifth-generation family member to work there and she plans to stay.

“As early as I can remember, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” said Petri, who’s the manager of sales planning and analysis. “Other kids would say an astronaut or a doctor, and I would always say I wanted to run Ricos.”


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