Ready Foods: A Colorado success story
In 1972, Luis Abarca had a notion that only in retrospect seems obvious: Mexican food would become mainstream in the U.S. the same way Italian food had, and restaurants were going to need help preparing it. That was the impetus for Ready Foods, a Denver-based food processor that has expanded its product line well beyond Mexican fare over the years and now sells to more than 1,000 restaurants in Colorado as well as to clients in 35 states.
“The idea was that there would be a lot of people wanting to serve Mexican food but they didn’t know how to cook Mexican food,” says Ready Foods’ President Marco Antonio Abarca, a Stanford Law School graduate and former attorney who took over the family business from his parents, Luis and Martha Abarca, 21 years ago. “Their idea was to sell to restaurants that wanted to have a ‘Taco Tuesday Night,’ and they could get everything prepared by us, from tortillas to taco meat to salsa to rice and beans. So that was the initial insight: to prepare Mexican food for non-Mexican restaurants.”
Luis Abarca, a Mexican immigrant, had previously built a successful restaurant in Denver with a partnership that included his brother. That restaurant, La Fonda, is still in operation on 38th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard in Wheat Ridge and gave Luis Abarca not only the capital to launch Ready Foods, but also valuable insights into the food industry that helped shape his vision for the business.
Ready Foods, which started out under the Colfax Viaduct near the old Mile High Stadium, now boasts seven manufacturing plants and a warehouse. It employs 260 to rank No. 17 on this year’s ColoradoBiz list of the state’s top family companies.
Among Luis Abarca’s early insights was that when the military draft was discontinued in 1973, it ended a reliable pipeline of skilled short-order cooks trained by the military that eateries had come to depend on.
“As that happened, the skill level of people in the kitchens kept going down and down and down,” says Marco Antonio Abarca. “So my parents’ idea was to concentrate skill in a commissary, cook with large pieces of equipment, be more efficient. Whereas the industry was going toward low skill and low wages, our idea was to go the opposite: high skill and well-paying jobs. So we don’t have chefs, but we have very skilled cooks.”
About the time Marco Antonio put aside his law career to take over the family business, Ready Foods transitioned from a “Mexican food company” to what he calls a “soup and sauce company.”
“We make all types of food products, from chicken soup to stroganoff to Alfredo sauce to pad tai sauce,” he says. “If it can be made in a kettle, we can make it. I guess it was an opening up of our horizons and embracing an American idea that any food in this country is American food after a while.”
Ready Foods products are cooked in 200-gallon steam-jacketed kettles, then packaged in plastic bags and cooled quickly to be sold either refrigerated or frozen.
“We don’t add preservatives, we don’t add colors,” Marco Antonio says. “It’s basically the same as you’d make it at a restaurant or at home. It’s just on a larger scale. The quality, the raw materials are, for a lot of things, the very best that we can find. And there is a market for high quality. We don’t want to be in the business of making very cheap things or low-cost, low-quality foods.”
Ready Foods is also not in the business of disclosing the names of its restaurant clients. “Let me tell you why,” Marco Antonio offers. “There’s this illusion that they’re cooking the food. What we do is cook it for them so they can serve it. Nobody really wants to acknowledge that we exist.”
ART IN THE FAMILY
Luis Abarca, who died in 2012 at the age of 77, passed down more than a business to his offspring. (His wife, Martha Abarca, preceded him in death by about three years). Luis also imparted a great appreciation for art. A voracious collector and active painter, he made frequent trips to Mexico with his family or alone and often picked up new works along the way. The Abarca Family Collection is now one of the largest Mexican and Mexican-American art collections in the region.
That passion for art is most evident in Luis’ daughter, Adrianna Abarca. For the past three years she has curated exhibits at the Arvada Center and is the owner of Adrianna Ethnic Arts in Denver. At one time it was the largest distributor of ethnic arts in the country.
The Abarcas have been longtime supporters of education and the arts. They were founding members of the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado, and Adrianna remains a board member.
“We’re very proud of our efforts to grow the concept of Latino philanthropy,” says Adrianna, adding that the organization has funded more than $1 million in grants to Latino nonprofits in Colorado in the past five years.
“Anything that’s going on in the arts, we’re pretty much out there supporting it,” she says. “We also do a lot of financial support of organizations that do community service, health care and education. We try to stay as involved in the community as possible.”
Marco Antonio Abarca says that his father’s entrepreneurial zeal was rooted in his restlessness and desire to work for himself.
“My father was ambitious,” Marco Antonio says. “He knew that working for someone else, he would never be able to go beyond the low expectations that were set for him by other people.
“My father was the visionary; my mother was the person who was able to keep the thing running in a lot of ways,” Marco Antonio continues. “He had the great ideas; she had the ability to manage the complexities of doing business in this country in a way that my father couldn’t do. My mother was Irish-American. She grew up in Denver, so she could understand and navigate the system in this country. They came from humble backgrounds but they were both very, very smart.”
Marco Antonio, 50, says he learned much from his father, inheriting what he calls an “immigrant’s sense of wonderment,” but adds, “He had a view of the world that was uniquely his. I can’t share that vision because I’m not an immigrant, I’m not new here. But he came to this country to succeed, to triumph in his way, and that sort of can-do, make things happen, you can go as far as you dream sort of mindset, I still have. But I’m also a product of this country. I see nuance, where for him it was just coming and triumphing.”
SUITED FOR BUSINESS
Marco Antonio, who completed his undergraduate studies at Yale University before heading to Stanford for law school, cut his legal career short to enter the family business after getting a call from his parents who said they would sell the company if he didn’t want to take over. Marco Antonio says his father was ill; Adrianna says her parents were just tired. What they agree on is this:
“I knew if they sold it in those conditions they would not get paid very well for their business, for all that effort,” Marco Antonio says. “So I decided to come back and get in the family business. I was very, very fortunate that I did. It was a very good small business. It was well run. Good people, good recipes, a good culture. “
Since his return, Marco Antonio has grown the company more than fivefold, from fewer than 50 employees to about 260.
He also found that running a business came naturally to him. “I found as time went by I was a much better businessperson than I was a lawyer,” he says. “I had a feel for business more than I had it for law. When you’re an attorney, you’re primarily resolving things; you’re ancillary to a business and that business’ life. When you’re running a business, you’re at the core of what it’s about.”
Marco Antonio says the future appears favorable for Ready Foods, with Obamacare and the potential for immigration reform likely to drive up labor costs for restaurants, coupled with a growing scarcity of skilled cooks.
“There are thousands, if not millions of people who are tied to jobs where they’re underpaid,” he says. “If they have the ability to take their labor and go where they want to, they’ll go where they’re most valuable. And they’ll be paid more. So I think there will be more of a move toward what we do, which is a commissary for restaurants and restaurant chains, because the labor component of running restaurants will keep going up. At the same time, those cooking skills are disappearing at an alarming rate. So that’s what I see as the future for my whole industry: how we’re going to deal with labor.”
Both the company and the country have evolved over four decades, and the business that began under the Colfax Viaduct as a Mexican-food specialist is now quintessentially “American,” as Luis Abarca foresaw more than 40 years ago. So is the story of the business itself.
“It’s an American story. It’s an immigrant story,” Marco Antonio Abarca says. “It’s no different than the stories we’ve been telling in this country for 200 years. We’re just the latest example of it. And it’s happening right now all over Denver.”