Reimagining “Organic”

Robert W. Garcia leads a $30 million all-natural tortilla chips empire at the cutting edge of the natural-food movement

Robert W. Garcia has worked in the food industry most of his life. Prior to his current endeavor, he was a regional sales manager for a food-distribution company that had him on the road more than at home. His children were young and he was missing special moments in their lives. Also, he wanted more quality time for himself, something his work lifestyle couldn’t offer.

Thinking Out Loud

Trading words with Robert W. Garcia

Success
Family. If the family’s healthy,
and growing, and happy, then
I’m successful. It isn’t money.

Innovation
Creativity, new items, new
products

Integrity
This is an extremely meaningful word to me, both in business and personally

Latino
It’s very personal. It’s where I
come from.

So, he decided to launch a business that he thought would mostly manage itself, allowing him three days off a week for golf. He laughs now when he thinks how green he was about the responsibilities involved. Today, his golf clubs may be gathering dust in the garage, but his business—RW Garcia Co. Inc., a 30-year-old $30 million manufacturer of organic, premium, and all-natural tortilla chips—
is thriving.

Garcia chose tortilla chips, he says, because they were popular in northern California. But he had a goal of using only the healthiest ingredients. He found a distributor in Southern California who used whole-cooked corn rather than flour corn and pure corn oil.

At that time, healthy foods were taking off and the market was receptive to his product. Garcia began to make inroads in major supermarkets and health-food stores across the country. Then, in 1986, his distributor ran into a short-term distribution problem. “Even a couple of days away from your customers and they’ll replace you,” he says. That’s when he decided to set up his first manufacturing plant. “I begged and borrowed money from every family member I had, went out, and bought equipment and set up a plant.”

He recalls, “We started making product and it wasn’t very good at first. Everything was a learning experience. It seemed easy to buy raw, dry corn and turn that into a tortilla chip, but then we had to decide how long to cook it. It was the school of hard knocks.” Garcia bought product from a third party while the company was working on quality control. Six months later, happy with the flavor, they began putting out their own product.

The company started out with a standard tortilla chip. But while visiting his son’s school in Pennsylvania, he attended a natural-food expo that would change his life forever. “It was an eye-opener for me,” Garcia says. “I had envisioned ‘organic’ as someone on the street corner selling tomatoes, but it was much more sophisticated than that.”

Soon after, “we had a customer who wanted us to make blue (organic) chips for them and we started studying it. Two years later, we were looking at the growth possibilities in the category. Within months, it became the fastest-growing category in supermarkets, but we already had a jump on it, and understood it. We started manufacturing to German standards, which were way ahead of the US. Now, 20 years later, we’re leading the group.”

The company follows the British Retail Consortium global standard for safety and quality, as well as the European standards for genetically modified (GMO) free foods and American kosher standards. “Ingredients are an essential part of our products,” Garcia says. “We use only certified non-GMO corn; our oils contain no trans fats; our organic corn is certified from seed to milling; our spices are nonirradiated and free of artificial ingredients; and most of our products are wheat and gluten free.”

The company’s products include classic yellow and blue tortilla chips, flaxseed, veggie, Thai, and spice, and come in a mixed bag (two varieties in one bag), a big bag, and classic size. They recently launched a “dipper,” a rectangular chip with a curved edge. Their newest chips, which cater to a high-end market, include sweet potato and curry/mango.

Today, produced via two plants in San Jose and North Carolina, Garcia’s chips are available across America in both traditional grocery stores such as Publix Super Markets, Inc., and Vons, as well as health-food stores such as Whole Foods. Garcia also donates to local food banks and communities affected by disasters.

As a successful Latino businessman, Garcia takes time to pass on his wisdom to young Latinos through his involvement with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in San Jose. “Aside from mentoring Latino employees, I am always available for other young people who have ideas they want to share. I hope to be able to give them direction as well as caution them
on avenues not to go down,” he says.

Garcia is not only successful, he’s humble. “Some people call me a role model for the Latino community,” he says, “but I’m just an ordinary guy who has been very fortunate. I was in the right spot at the right time with the right idea.” By sharing his experience, perhaps he can help others find their “right” spot too.

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