A crunchy chip sturdy enough for molten cheese, jalapeños optional, is the foundation of the perfect concession-stand nacho. It’s also the basis upon which one San Antonio business was built.
So as the snack company marks its 110th birthday, the company is rolling out a new ad campaign that celebrates its heritage as well as its position as one of the largest snack companies in the world. If you’ve eaten nachos at a Spurs game, movie theater, or school festival, chances are you’ve consumed a Ricos product.
Liberto Specialty Company, the parent company of the Ricos brand of products, is a family-owned business that began in 1909 with a grocery store and butcher market on South Presa Street. Sicilian immigrant Rosario Liberto founded the store and also established a roasted peanuts business that became the first concession supplier in the United States.
In 1960, Frank Liberto took over the business, naming it Ricos after his father Enrico, and later created a chain of snack bars and acquired popcorn businesses. He led Liberto’s Specialty Company with his son Tony until his death in 2017.
It was Frank who developed concession-stand nachos and introduced the concept at Arlington Stadium, home of baseball’s Texas Rangers, in 1976 and Texas Stadium, the former home of the Dallas Cowboys, the following year.
The response was phenomenal, said Tony Liberto. He is now president and CEO of Liberto Specialty Company, maker of not only chips and cheese sauce, but also ready-to-eat popcorn, sno-cone syrups, roasted peanuts, and other fun foods.
But it’s the nacho that made Ricos the star of the snack bar. And Liberto says the substantial chips are the key.
“When you ladled it – back then it was a ladle, now it’s a machine – the hot cheese over a tortilla chip, you want to make sure that the chip has enough backbone, so to speak,” Liberto said. “So you don’t have just a bunch of wet ‘noodles’ you’re trying to get out. So my dad realized that early on, and all his chips had to be thicker. It’s what we call the perfect nacho chips for nachos.”
And for those who wonder what’s in that liquid gold atop the chips, Liberto confirmed there’s real cheese in the ingredient list, in fact, more than another popular brand.
Cheesy nachos took off nationwide in 1977 after United Artists Theaters began selling the product at its movie theater snack bars in the Northeast. That led to international food distribution trade shows, and despite Frank Liberto needing to explain to European distributors that forks aren’t needed for consuming nachos, demand steadily increased.
In the early ’80s, Ricos products entered the retail sales market when Sam’s Clubs began selling #10 cans of the cheese sauce. Then came H-E-B and Walmart.
As those sales increased to more than a third of its current business, the company set up a retail sales division that operates from Ricos headquarters on the street where it all began, South Presa.
Next door to the main office is a cash-and-carry store for local wholesale customers, and adjacent the art-filled headquarters lobby is a small museum of old photos, trinkets, and memorabilia chronicling the Ricos story. A life-size company mascot, named “Rico” and crafted to look like a dollop of nacho cheese, presides over the museum.
Also helping to tell the story of Ricos is Tony Liberto’s niece, Megan MacDiarmid, who as manager of marketing services, brings the generations of Libertos running the company to five. Liberto Specialty Company has a total of 110 employees, based in San Antonio and at its manufacturing plant in Arlington, where it is closer to the distribution hub of Dallas.
But the company’s local roots are so deep, Liberto said, it often surprises people to know Ricos nachos and other products are sold in concession stands and grocery stores in every state and in 57 countries around the world, including Saudi Arabia just this year. Mexico was its first international customer and is still its largest. “But you would be amazed at how many chips we sell in Korea,” he added.
San Antonians like their nachos, too. Charlie Gomez, vice president of specialty markets at Ricos, said fans of the processed cheese snack buy an average 1,900 orders of nachos per event at Aramark concession stands at the AT&T Center.
This year, sales are projected to reach $128 million, making it Ricos’ best year yet, Liberto said. With that kind of revenue, investors have come calling. In 2007, it sold the distribution business under Liberto’s to a wholesale distributor known as Vistar. But Liberto’s Specialty Company isn’t going the way of other recent homegrown favorites, Liberto said, selling out to investor groups, though he doesn’t blame companies that go that route.
“There’s a lot of money on the sidelines in the private equity arena that people are trying to put money in different businesses like ourselves, but we are not interested,” said Liberto. “I feel like I still have more years of work in my body and developing up to the next level the family business.”
That might be reassuring for South Texas fans of Ricos who would want the homegrown business to stay put. In other parts of Texas, however, it might not register much attention.
The company recently conducted market research that showed many, especially in North Texas, are unaware that Ricos products are also available in supermarkets. So the company recently began a marketing campaign using social media and billboards throughout Texas to raise its profile.
In the ads, titled “How to Nacho,” melty cheese sauce covers a single tortilla chip and is topped with a pepper slice. It’s as if making a nacho is serious business, though it’s perhaps cheesier than that – but in a good way, of course.
“We like to say we offer fun foods for a fun world, and it is a fun business,” Liberto said. “Everything we do basically revolves around entertainment. Our product, 99 times out of 100, is always going to be used in some type of entertainment venue – theaters, stadiums, arenas, parties, ballparks, festivals. So we’re offering fun foods for a fun world.”