The beautifully designed Ricos Products headquarters on South Presa have a distinctly clean, airy contemporary look, with original art by San Antonio artists adorning the halls, among them Vincent Valdez and the late Chuck Ramirez. But just left of the main lobby, a different space beckons you to take a look. It’s a small museum that tells the story of the company’s extraordinary success. As president and CEO, Tony Liberto is the fourth-generation family member at the helm, following in the footsteps of his Sicilian immigrant great-grandfather, Rosario; grandfather, Enrico, and his innovator father, Frank.
It was Frank Liberto who created what became the most popular snack food at sports stadiums and movie theaters’ concession stands across the U.S. — nachos with cheese sauce and sliced jalapeños. The company took off from there, with Frank developing new products, machines and procedures to enhance the quality and delivery of Ricos’ products. Today, the $100 million-plus company makes all sorts of fun snacks, such as cheese sauces, popcorn, roasted peanuts, nachos and tortilla chips, sliced jalapeños and, of course, concession nachos.
You started working in the family business right after graduation from Texas A&M. Was it something you really wanted to do, or did you primarily feel an obligation toward the family?
When I was young, I wanted to be a professional basketball player. Unfortunately, my mom and dad did not make me 6 feet 8 inches, so I had to change my direction. But by the time I got to college, I realized that our family business had so much history and tradition, and I felt a strong desire to get involved. That’s why I focused on business management, and when I graduated, I came to work for the company.
When I came on board, I started from the ground up. I worked in the warehouse, in the distribution facilities, manufacturing, in the credit department, and then moved over into sales and eventually became the VP of sales in 2000. In 2006, I was promoted to president while my dad was still CEO. Now I am president and CEO.
How does it feel to be in charge of a legacy business such as this one?
There is a lot to be proud of. And we already have a member of the fifth generation working here, too — my niece, Megan MacDiarmid. There are five grandkids (Frank’s grandchildren), so we’ll see who else will want to get involved.
Your father was the innovator who put the company on the national map. Was it difficult to follow in his footsteps?
It was challenging. He was an entrepreneur and recognized for his skills. I always say he could sell ice to the Eskimos because he had that kind of sales skills. But as time moved on, we got out of the concession industry that Dad pioneered to focus more on the retail-grocery side of the business. I think I have maintained the concession side and added the retail side and the international side. Our retail business has been growing steadily every year. We are in all 50 states, in Wal-Mart, H-E-B, Sam’s Club, Kroger, all of them. And internationally, we are selling products in 57 countries. I am concentrating my effort on continuing growth in those areas.
What is the most popular product?
The cheese sauces. You can use them in many ways, not just for nachos. You can put cheese sauce on vegetables, as an ingredient in recipes, in casseroles. We have a lot of recipes on our website. But nachos dominate on the concession side of sales. We are known as the originators of ballpark nachos.
You have added some new products. Tell us about the Texan Original brand.
It’s a higher-end product line of tortilla chips with three different flavors. We also have some hot sauces and a snack mix, and we are coming up with a cheese product that has jalapeños and tomatoes already mixed in. It’s attracting a different type of consumer.
Where are Ricos’ products manufactured?
We have a plant in Arlington, Texas. Right now, we are adding a third tortilla chip line, and getting that line commissioned is on the forefront on most of our efforts right now. We make our own chips and also private-label tortilla chips for other companies.
Do you eat a lot of chips with cheese sauce? (He laughs.)
Yeah, I enjoy our products, and I like tasting new ones. We are always developing new formulations. In fact, today we are having a product tasting. It’s a healthier formulation of the cheese sauce.
Is Ricos involved in the wider San Antonio community?
Yes, we are strong supporters of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. We’ve been involved with that organization for 25 years. My mom was diagnosed as a diabetic as an adult in her 50s. We continue to contribute to JDRF in the hope of finding a cure. We are getting closer and closer every year. I am also on the board of the Seton Home (for teen mothers), the zoo, and Variety — the Children’s Charity of Texas, an organization that provides support to children with disabilities. It was founded by the movie theater industry. Since our products are in movie theaters, we have been involved with that organization for years. (Ricos also sponsors Spurs games, as well as many other teams’ events.)
What aspect of your job do you find most satisfying?
l would say it’s the culture. We consider the people working for us part of our family, and that’s the culture we have here. I feel that people wake up in the morning and look forward to coming to work. I think that’s the most rewarding aspect.
*Mr. Liberto’s comments have been edited for publication.
By Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photography by Janet Rogers