Three generations in, the consummate family business has cemented its place in the food manufacturing world.
In 1940, coming out of the Great Depression, George and Arthurine Renfro sold spices and vinegar out of their home in Fort Worth. As the story goes, selling spices evolved into selling syrups and chow-chow, the operation moved into a warehouse downtown, and the Renfro Foods brand became Mrs. Renfro’s in 1963.
Flash-forward to its third generation of ownership: In 2022, Renfro Foods exists as both a titan of its industry — salsas, sauces, relishes, and condiments — and a family business in perpetual motion in order to keep up.
As President Doug Renfro puts it, constant evolution is paramount to survival. “We’ve had to continuously innovate on the flavor side, which is now what we’re known for,” he says. “We’re never going to compete with Campbell’s Soup or Frito-Lay; we know our place in the world. What we can do is be nimble. We’ve come out with craft beer salsa, blackberry serrano salsa, mango habanero — things my dad and my uncle wouldn’t have eaten. Similarly, they came out with things my grandparents wouldn’t have eaten. You have to evolve with each generation to meet consumer tastes.”
The Renfro Foods manufacturing practices and spaces have also changed aplenty during its more than 80-year existence. After initially operating out of the Renfros’ home, the company moved into a 5,000-square-foot space on Stella St. in downtown Fort Worth in 1952. In the 1970s and 1980s, incremental production and office additions were made; by 2006, they expanded to a 10,500-square-foot warehouse space.
With the most recent acquisition and shipping warehouse addition in 2021, they’ve now reached 21,000 square feet in manufacturing space, and including offices, a total of 55,000 square feet of workspace.
“Our core building that my grandfather moved into in 1952, after he moved out of working from his home, is about 5,000 square feet — it’s just tiny,” says Renfro. “We eventually added the production space, which is about 7,000 square feet, and added another 10,000 to 12,000 square feet of warehouse and offices, in the 1980s.”
“When we were children, the block had a church, gym, a bar, houses, and our factories. Now, we have two city blocks, we now own the street in between them, and it’s all one big piece of property. We just keep adding on; it’s like a quilt.”
Renfro’s manufacturing operation is as follows: five Chester-Jensen 500-gallon steam-jacketed kettles, a 14-head rotary filler, one- and five-gallon plastic containers for a separate area of food service, an automated capper, a Standard-Knapp case packer, and two parallel chrome labelers. And though there are still manual components to the process, the majority of their operations are now automated.
Each product has to be cooked close to boiling, and with a pH level of 4.3 or below. Prior to packing, all food is cooled off with a circulating chlorinated ambient water system.
The company incorporates both private label and co-packing into their business model, and has for some time. The reason: they have all the resources, and having all the resources becomes a major cost if not properly utilized.
“We’ve always been in the co-packing business — no matter what we made, we’ve always made private label versions,” says Renfro. “Behind the scenes, we have even helped somebody else come up with new items. Private label is about half of what we do, and we like that. It’s a very nice, symbiotic relationship.
“People will ask ‘why would competitors have you make their product?’ and I say, well, if you’ve got five kettles at $130,000 each, a filler for $300,000, and two labelers at $100,000, after a while, it’s real money. If you don’t have a factory, and you’re not selling millions of jars, you really can’t afford to. And if you do have a factory, you better run as much as you can through it.”
As a result of the pandemic, Renfro has had to shape-shift in ways large and small to keep the machine whirring. Two weeks’ lead time on orders became three, ingredient suppliers started requiring up to four alternate sourcing options, and subsequently, operation costs skyrocketed.
Along with getting creative in its problem-solving, Renfro’s decision-making has been timely: just before the pandemic, they decided to bite the proverbial bullet and upgrade its equipment — a decision that has since enabled leaps in efficiency at a time when many businesses struggled to survive at all.
“Before the pandemic, we were quite pleased with ourselves producing 135 bottles per minute,” says Renfro. “But the pandemic made everyone that does what we do go up 35 percent overnight, and we weren’t ready for that.
“Thank god we had just bought new machinery; it wasn’t fine-tuned or dialed-in, but over the last two years, my cousin, with the maintenance staff, figured out how to get us up to 195 bottles per minute. This helps us avoid an overnight shift, which has been very helpful.”
He adds, “We were also very appreciative of our key longtime employees, and we’ve been able to retain almost everybody. Some of the machines are finicky, or contrary, and you can’t just hire someone overnight to run it; you have to hire what I call the ‘whisperer’ for that machine.”
Challenges: Currently, the allocation of time and resources remains a hurdle for Renfro Foods — but some of the biggest challenges stem from unexpected areas: tomatoes. “Right now, if you offered to double our salsa sales, we couldn’t do it because the tomato vendor will only let us have maybe ten percent more than we had last year,” says Renfro. “Tomato costs just went up between 29 to 45 percent; droughts don’t appear to be getting any better, there’s wildfires, and some farmers have decided to grow almonds instead because it’s better money.
“My dad’s 85. He’ll come to lunch once or twice a week and I’ll fill him on what we’re dealing with — in particular, with the tomatoes. He’ll just shake his head and say, ‘That’s not supposed to be able to happen.'”
Opportunities: At this time, the two lowest hanging fruits for Renfro Foods are bolstering its online and social media engagement and continuing to grow its co-packing partnerships. “You go to Expo West or read your trade magazines and catch up on the most innovative stuff, and it’s something like plant-based chickens — and that’s not us,” Renfro says with a laugh. “We aren’t in the innovative space. We come out with another fruit salsa, and it’s innovative for us, but it isn’t going to be at the forefront of what’s being talked about. So it’s more important than ever that our social media reach be good, and that costs money to do well.”
For myriad reasons, the pandemic shook up the co-packing world, causing an influx of those in need of a steady and sturdy business to partner with. Consequently, the company’s number has been ringing often with such opportunities. “People have been changing co-packers for one reason or another — and without being mean-spirited, we’ve benefitted from that,” says Renfro. “We’re very honest, we’re transparent, we try to avoid surprises, and if we screw up, we’ll tell you. Nobody saw the pandemic and supply chain issues coming. With the new machinery that has allowed us to produce faster, I’d love to say that we were brilliant to set ourselves up for these opportunities, but we were just lucky.”
Needs: Now that much of the industry has accepted and pivoted to accommodating pandemic-related shortages and supply hangups, Renfro Foods has once again re-focused on optimizing its manufacturing processes. “We always need more automation,” says Renfro. “For years, we had an automated decaser: it was a machine that pulled the jars out of the boxes, but we cased them up by hand. But just as we automated the case packing, the decaser ‘went to heaven.’ Now, we’ve got human beings taking the jars out of the cases, and a machine putting them back in. So: there’s always room for more automation.”