Embracing technology as well as tradition, President Marco Antonio Abarca expands upon his parents’ original vision of providing restaurants with prepared Mexican foods.

Photos Jonathan Castner

“Both of my parents were visionaries,” Marco Antonio Abarca says of his father and mother, Luis and Martha.

“The first insight they had was that Mexican food would eventually become American food,” says Abarca. “And it is. Almost every American who cooks makes a Mexican dish of one sort or another.”

As American restaurants became more and more willing to offer Mexican-style dishes on their menus, they didn’t have the time or know-how to prepare the foods from scratch. Realizing that trend, the elder Abarcas invested their share of profits from the restaurant Luis had co-founded, La Fonda, into making pre-prepared Mexican foods for American restaurants with Ready Foods in 1972. As a shortage of skilled cooks became more common within the restaurant industry, the Abarcas’ business continued to experience growth, with the company stepping into the breach the labor shortages created.

Today, Ready Foods makes a variety of food preparations under the banner name “Marco’s Products.” There are chiles — including chile verde, chile con carne, and green chile with pork (“our signature Colorado sauce,” says the company’s website) — and a variety of bean preparations and salsas. There are also soups (such as menudo and chicken tortilla with cheese), cheese sauces, and sauces that aren’t just for enchiladas, like Alfredo, sausage gravy, bacon marmalade, and even red and yellow curries. It didn’t need to just be Mexican dishes anymore, Marco Antonio says of his decision to expand the company’s soup and sauce options. After all, you don’t have to be French to cook French food, he reasoned.

“We’re in thousands of restaurants,” says Abarca. “We estimate that in non-chain restaurants we’re probably in 25 to 30 percent of all Colorado restaurants. We sell them something.” And business doesn’t stop at the state line: Through its distribution network, Marco’s Products are in 32 states and one Canadian province.

“If you eat in restaurants in Colorado, you’ve had our stuff,” adds Abarca. “You just don’t know it. There’s this illusion that the restaurants are cooking it in the back of the house — when, oftentimes, they’re just opening a bag.” That is, a bag of food prepared and then packaged at one of Ready Foods plants in Denver.

Ready Foods has four factories in Denver ranging from around 25,000 to 82,000 square feet. “We cook principally in steam-jacketed [200- and 300-gallon] kettles. We bag our food, cool it down, and then sell it either refrigerated or frozen. So the end user — the restaurant — just needs to reheat the contents and they have a fully-prepared super sauce, ready to go.”

The company also employs a sous vide water bath to cook bags of beans: “You’re able to concentrate all of the flavor and spices inside the bag and you don’t have to worry about it evaporating,” says Abarca about using the sous vide style of cooking.

Abarca points to the company’s use of GFSI food standards, practicing occasional mock recalls in case there’s ever a need for one. (So far, there haven’t been any recalls, says Abarca.) USDA inspectors provide daily monitoring of the two Ready Foods facilities which use meat as part of the preparations.

The company’s food scientists keep watch over the food preparation, as well as offering R&D services to outside concerns. About 1 to 2 percent of sales come from co-packing for two additional retail clients, says Abarca.

And on the horizon: employing robotics at the company’s upcoming fifth factory. Abarca expects the 136,000-square-foot facility to open by summer 2023. “It will be one of the most modern food plants in the world,” says Abarca. “In the future, there will be robots that place bags into boxes and then boxes onto pallets and then conveyor those pallets into a cooler where another robot will come and place it into a racking position. And when we have our orders ready to go, a robot will go in and pull out the pallets and bring them to the loading dock.”

What does Abarca think his late parents, Luis and Martha, might say about all the changes that have taken place, ranging from the mainstream popularity of Mexican foods they predicted to, now, the use of robots within the business they began?

“It’s an extension of a vision they started,” says Abarca. “But what they really contributed was a set of values — and I work every day to live by the values they taught me. We’re a great example of an immigrant company. My father was from Mexico. I’m a first generation Mexican-American entrepreneur, and I carry a lot of those immigrant values forward.”

Challenges: Like many industries, Abarca is facing a labor shortage. But he aims to hold onto employees by keeping their work meaningful, even as the company transitions more and more into automation. Some workers will be “working in tandem with robots,” for instance, but remain empowered to initiate problem-solving solutions on their own. “Nobody wants to feel like they’re a cog in a big machine,” says Abarca. “People want to feel that what they do is important, what everybody does is important.”

Opportunities: Abarca describes a paradox: “Although the labor shortage is hard on us, it’s much harder on restaurants. So, as restaurants find it much harder and harder to execute, they’re more likely to use prepared foods that they can believe in, that they know are safe, consistent, and well-priced. So the labor shortage is both a challenge and an opportunity.” Ready Foods will be relying on Lean manufacturing and robotics/artificial intelligence, he says, referencing concepts like the Industrial Internet of Things and Industry 4.0.

Needs: “Finding the right skill set in the employees that we will be hiring,” says Abarca. “In the coming year, I can easily imagine us hiring 30 to 50 more people.”