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Posted: February 01, 2014

Ready Foods: A Colorado success story

Second-generation co-owner Marco Antonio Abarca builds on immigrant father’s vision

Mike Taylor

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.

 

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

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.

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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