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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

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.”

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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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