The Renfro Foods story has so many threads that it is challenging to weave them into coherent cloth. My reintroduction to the product line was a result of the COVID-19 shutdown, which marooned my partner’s Guatemalan sister and brother-in-law in our house for seven months.
Saturdays became “Shucos Saturday.” Shucos are a relatively recent Guatemalan street food phenomenon, first served up from trucks near schools, and now ubiquitous in the capital. The word is slang for “dirty,” perhaps a reference to their humble origins. Shucos are essentially hot dogs with anything your heart fancies piled on. Guacamole is customary.
I began to pine for my own shucos topper remembering a condiment called Mrs. Renfro’s Chow Chow that was always on my grandmother’s table. I easily located it in Central Market along with a dizzying array of salsas and condiments now under the Renfro trademark.
In 1960, Mrs. Renfro’s Chow Chow was the anchor for the company, which now boasts over 30 offerings, many bordering on the esoteric like the savory Blackberry Serrano Salsa.
The 80-year-old company is an inspiring story of American entrepreneurship. In 1940, George Renfro and his wife, Arthurine, co-founded Renfro Food Company in the garage of their north Fort Worth home. They began the venture by distributing packaged spices and pepper sauces. The acquisition of a syrup company in 1948 resulted in a growth spurt with the product eventually landing in 85 percent of the restaurants in the Dallas Fort Worth area.
The introduction of the company’s Chow Chow quadrupled annual sales with distribution throughout Texas and surrounding states. Nimbleness and adaptability have been a theme of the still family-run company now managed by the third generation.
Renfro Foods, Inc. is located just east of the South Freeway, not far from the now burgeoning South Main area.
“We’re on the edge of gentrification,” quipped the amiable and energetic Doug Renfro, who can remember when the anchor product was stirred with a boat paddle. Doug Renfro, the grandson of George and Aurthurine, graciously guided me on a delightful tour of the plant nostalgically reminiscent of grade school field trips. Doug, who holds an MBA and has a strong business background, joined the company in 1992 and has shepherded sales growth to 10 times the amount from the day he started.
“I like to say we are the largest of the little guys,” chirps Renfro, referring to the fact that the company is now the largest family-owned salsa maker. They are the eighth-largest producer among all salsa makers. However Renfro brand products account for only 45 percent of sales. Private brands and hospitality comprise the rest.
Curiously, the 45,000-square-foot plant and offices have the feel of a modest shop. The administration is executed by a staff of four and manufacturing is achieved by approximately 35 full-time employees and 30 part-time workers.
Nonetheless, scales are simply staggering. The plant produces 100,000 bottles of product daily. Renfro purchase between 10 and 20 million pounds of tomatoes from the San Joaquin Valley in California. Many ingredients arrive precut for use from local farmers’ markets.
“How has COVID affected sales?” I enquire.
“Sales are up,” says Renfro. “Supply chain has been challenging causing production interruptions.”
Spices are measured and meted out in a special room a day before they are needed for the scheduled production.
“We can measure to the 100th of a pound for 4,000-pound batches,” Doug informs me. On the roster today was 2.52 pounds of ground Chile Arbol.
“Not 2.5 or 2.6 pounds,” says Doug. “Our spices are fresher than anything in your pantry,” he adds.
“No one can enter the spice room when they are preparing the chiles for Ghost Pepper Salsa,” their fieriest offering. Doug tells me it requires its own special PPE to handle the world’s hottest chile pepper, the Indian Bhut Jolokia.
One of the most impressive achievements is the consistently high quality sustained as the company has scaled up at a vertiginous pace. And because the salsas have high acidity they require no preservatives.
Renfro products are now available in all 50 states, as well as in Canada, the Caribbean, England, Scotland, Germany, Spain, and Australia. Shopping from home these days? Place your order on Amazon.
And what of my beloved childhood condiment Mr’s Renfro’s Hot Chow Chow? Doug tells me that the once flagship product these days requires a mere four hours of plant time per month!
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