When assessing the future, sometimes it makes sense to return to your roots — trace back your history to understand from whence you came, to see where you might go in the future. Sometimes, it makes sense to return to what worked best in the past, and alter those approaches to meet the needs of today. This concept holds up in business, life and even in the movies — having been the central theme to the 1980s cult classic “Back to the Future.”
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Although it doesn’t take 1.21 gigawatts to produce taquitos, burritos and other frozen Mexican foods, Ruiz Foods has adopted this concept — having gone “back to the future” to rekindle the innovative spirit that carried it through its 50 years in business.
“[Ruiz Foods’] heritage is innovation — the company was founded and built on innovation,” explains Rachel Cullen, president and CEO of Ruiz Foods. “We believe in it, we invest in it; but it had slowed somewhat — particularly on the retail side. … So more than anything else, we’ve focused on what this company has really done well and ramped up the innovation.”
As Ruiz Foods celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014, it already has benefitted from this revitalization project — at presstime, work was wrapping up on a significant expansion and renovation of its headquarters in Dinuba, Calif., and an expansion of its Denison, Texas, plant was slated for a late spring startup.
Furthermore, the new-product development machine was running full-steam once again, supported by a reinvigorated research & development team and a brand new R&D center. Ruiz Foods once again has been launching a wide variety of new products based on improved focus, data and facilities on the research & development side.
Meshing the old with the new
Admittedly, the company known for revolutionizing the convenience-store roller-grill concept with its Tornados snack brand and for introducing the retail flour taquito had drifted slightly off-course in the execution of the innovation strategy. Fred Ruiz, who founded the company with his father, Louis, and is now the chairman emeritus, says the family remains very committed to the company and its future.
“Our culture is important to our success. Personally, I believe it gives us a competitive edge,” Ruiz says. “As family members, we are the stewards of this culture. We understand the responsibility we have to our 2,300 team members and their families.
“They trust us, as owners, to make decisions in the best interests of the business — which means providing a stable future for their families,” he adds.
Cullen, who boasts an impressive resume of executive leadership positions at leading consumer-packaged goods and food-processing companies, is a key focal point in the Ruiz Foods picture, having joined the company in August 2012. Her arrival helped signal the return of the inventive culture that carried Ruiz Foods in its first 50 years in business. For her part, Cullen isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel — in fact, she simply wants to improve its form and speed.
“This company was in a healthy position, so I wasn’t coming here bringing a lot of change,” Cullen says. “Instead, I was coming to learn the business, understand the business, understand where the future opportunities were and build on that legacy. It’s a very important distinction.”
Kim Ruiz Beck, chairman of Ruiz Foods, applauds the way in which Cullen and the new members of the management team have meshed with the Ruiz Foods veterans. Their approach fits perfectly with the Ruiz Foods culture, she says.
“We like to make things happen, we like to move quickly, that’s part of our DNA, and so it was important that we have someone that had that same sense of urgency and passion,” Ruiz Beck explains. “Rachel has brought everyone here to a new level, and she’s made some really strategic additions to the team.”
Ruiz sees the newest members of the management team clicking with the veteran management and is excited about what the future holds for Ruiz Foods.
“I think it’s worked out better than any of us dreamed,” Ruiz says. “What I found interesting is, Rachel has a greater vision for the future of this company than I did. … I do feel that there are tremendous opportunities, but what she sees [an experienced CEO coming from the outside world] is much bigger and much broader than what I believed. And that’s exciting to see.”
Cullen modestly echoes Ruiz’s statements, in saying, “I’m just taking his vision to the next level.”
Kathleen Da Cunha, vice president of R&D for Ruiz Foods, who joined the company shortly after Cullen, explains that once the entire team understood the vision of the top leadership, driving it through the rest of the company became easy.
“You’ve got a powerful leadership team now that is looking at innovation differently, understanding what role it wants to play in the marketplace,” she says. “Once you’ve put disciplines in place on how you approach innovation, your probability of success goes through the roof.
“That’s what reawakened the innovation spirit: understanding why we’re doing it, why it’s critically important either to the customer or the consumer, and what it needs in order to be successful,” Da Cunha adds.
Bursting with innovation
Almost immediately upon Cullen’s arrival, expansions and renovations of facilities and product lines began. The company already had decided to invest in expanding its corporate headquarters in Dinuba — which all team members interviewed during The National Provisioner’s visit called “long overdue.”
While the new office space will allow all employees to work together in the same building, it also adds significant capabilities that proclaim Ruiz Foods’ determination to be an innovation powerhouse again.
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First on that list is the state-of-the-art R&D center. Ruiz Foods’ research & development work had been wedged into the Dinuba plant, with the offices located on the second floor of the main building. Now, the Rose Ruiz R&D Center — named after Fred Ruiz’s mother, whose recipes formed the foundation of the company’s product lines — gives the company a more professional-level R&D setup.
“We have state-of-the-art R&D equipment, a sensory lab, and a pilot-plant capability,” Cullen says. Da Cunha is excited that the R&D center will allow Ruiz Foods to tune its product-development efforts even more into consumer needs.
“We’re testing product with consumers now, but we’ve implemented some changes in the way we evaluate our products and in our protocols,” she says. “Now, we’ll have that new sensory space in which to do this correctly: in a controlled environment.”
Furthermore, it will help take the burden of producing small batches for R&D off the production facility in Dinuba.
“It’s much more efficient to be running on a smaller line, and we won’t be breaking into production,” Da Cunha says. “We’ll have total flexibility to do hot-filled, cold-filled, co-extrusion, single-deposit, dual-deposit — every type of fill that we do. We can roll, we can fold, we can fry, we can batter; in order to have ultimate flexibility, our rolling and folding operation in the new pilot plant will be manual.”
The rekindling of the innovative spirit at Ruiz Foods has produced a bevy of new products already, including a new retail line of breakfast burritos and the Shell Shockers product — basically taquitos coated with a seasoning for an added flavor. Cullen and Da Cunha state that there are more innovative products making their way through the pipeline now.
In turn, the additional product lines have forced Ruiz Foods to expand its Denison facility as well. Cullen reports that the expansion, slated to run its first products in April, adds approximately 50,000 square feet and two processing lines.
“We are growing and need capacity, and it’s really not any more complicated than that,” Cullen says. Keeping things simple has served Ruiz Foods well in its 50 years, so the return to that simplistic approach pivoting around being ultra-innovative makes the most sense for the company.
If there remains any doubt that Ruiz Foods has not put in place the pieces to support its “back to the future” mindset, Da Cunha’s summary of how she and her team approach product development stands as testimony of the buy-in from the top down.
“I’m a big believer that you always need to be out-innovating yourself — if you’re not out-innovating yourself, somebody else will out-innovate you,” she explains. “And there’s a spirit at Ruiz Foods of challenging conventional wisdom — the ‘It can’t be done’ mentality does not exist here.”
To the ears of the fans of a 50-year-old company built on inventing categories and offering in-demand, differentiated products, that’s music they hadn’t heard in a few years — and should be pleased to hear again.
“It’s like Fred says, ‘Always happy; never satisfied,’” explains Cullen, “and that’s our spirit for the next 50 years.”