We recently connected with Doug Renfro and have shared our conversation below.
Doug, thanks for joining us, excited to have you contributing your stories and insights. Parents play a huge role in our development as youngsters and sometimes that impact follows us into adulthood and into our lives and careers. Looking back, what’s something you think you parents did right?
My parents performed the very difficult balancing act of being very strict but also in letting me learn by making mistakes. This sounds like a contradiction, but we tried to raise our children the same way. Another wrinkle in this story is that neither of my parents were not academically inclined, but all three of their children had a proclivity to make straight A’s. I think that my parents were afraid they might mess it up if they got too involved with our education so they let us forge our own paths. It worked out pretty well, I think, because the three of us have 5 degrees between us and are working as a high school math teacher, a judge and a salsa maker.
It was so wonderful growing up with so much freedom yet also always knowing that there was a safety net. I am embarrassed to admit that my dad built an entire science project for me in middle school one night when I had sheepishly admitted that it was due the next day. I excelled on multiple instruments, was an avid reader, won the geometry award, etc., but to this day, my capabilities with electrical engineering stop at changing light bulbs.
I was a high school senior before Ross Perot led the reform of the Texas education system. I was also an outstanding underachiever, so I gamed the system, figuring out that I only needed to take three classes my senior year in order to graduate. Those classes that I picked were band, jazz band, and Honors English. The system fought back and demanded that I take a fourth class, so I took Study Hall. I literally sat and looked at magazines for an hour, then raced home for lunch before going to my job at a white tablecloth restaurant to work as a waiter’s assistant until midnight. (“Waiter’s Assistant” is a fancy name for “busboy” when you work at an expensive restaurant.) I was taking home $200 per week in cash in 1980. I thought that I was rich. I parked on the street downtown. Lookin back, on the one hand, I can’t believe that my parents let me wander to my car after midnight downtown when we lived in the suburbs, but then again, I was so headstrong and independent that I appreciate them just letting me plot my own path.
As I journeyed through college, marriage, a corporate journey and then re-entry into the family business, my parents continued to provide unconditional love, financial support when needed, babysitting, you name it. My wife, my children and I have been extremely fortunate to have such parents.
As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your background and context?
I was very fortunate to have been born into a multigenerational family food business. Our product offerings, however, have changed greatly every few decades, allowing for much “intrapreneurship” in terms of product development, marketing, production, etc. My grandfather initially distributed grocery items from his house, then he made syrups (no maple trees were harmed), then he began making a southern relish called “chow chow,” which was 100% of our sales when my cousins and I were children.
My dad and uncle started making taco and picante sauces in the 1970’s. When I returned to the family business after spending 7 years in corporate America, we had Mild, Medium and Hot Picante Sauce plus a Green Taco Sauce. I’ve been privileged to lead our R&D for the past 30 years. Working together with my work family, we’ve become flavor innovators. We are known for coming out with such products as Chipotle Corn Salsa, Tequila Salsa, and Craft Beer Salsa. The first two items that I whipped up were Black Bean and Habanero. Those existed at a gourmet level, but not at an everyday grocery price. Our sales director, my uncle and I then spent many years pleading and begging distributors and retailers to carry our products. My cousin James and my dad increased our production capabilities over ten-fold during the last 30 years and my cousin Becky has been instrumental in such varied areas of our business as accounting, freight, insurance and international sales.
Our philosophy incorporates the fact that we are not rocket scientists and we know it. We make delicious condiments that are affordable. We’re honest and transparent. We won’t be the cheapest but we will do what we say and we’ll tell you what we can and cannot do. It’s been a wonderful ride working with my family for 30 years professionally now. As in any small family business, “the highs are high and the lows are low” but we’re fighters and survivors.
Any insights you can share with us about how you built up your social media presence?
I still remember when our former PR firm told me “there’s this new website called ‘Facebook’ and I’m going to set you and the brand up on it.” I’ve always called myself a brand whore in that I am basically shameless about pushing our brand and products upon people. When I came back to our company, our sales were tiny and my wife had retired from teaching to raise our children full-time. We needed more money and the only way to get that was to increase our sales and profits. I would do things like take our salsa to a party, open the hosts’ fridge, find the competing brand of salsa, toss it into their trash basket, then replace it with ours and close the fridge door.
The advent of social media gave me the ability to promote our brand everywhere at the same time and basically for free, so I fell in love with it. To me, the keys to building a brand successfully with social media, when you don’t have much of a budget, are to keep it happy and positive and catchy. It’s important not to be boring, i.e. don’t just post a photo of your product with the caption “it’s delicious.” That’s boring and won’t get anyone’s attention. I will post photos of myself looking quite idiotic, such as holding a jar while on the back of a horse in a canyon, or having someone balance a jar on my head. Make yourself vulnerable and people will respond to that. If you’re arrogant or cold, people will sense that and be turned off.
I also love cross-promoting. If I fall in love with another brand or product, I quickly check their social media accounts. If they are obviously making an effort, then I’ll tag them in a fun post. If, however, they have posted only 4 times in the past 15 months, I won’t help them because no one will see it and they’re clearly not helping themselves anyway.
I’m still a novice as far as the latest video trends go (TikTok) but I do remember to post an Instagram story from time to time. The sky really is the limit in terms of customer engagement on social media. I once saw a post where someone was complaining about our product having arrived broken. I could tell from the photo that the order had come from a 3rd party reseller, not from us, but I reached out to this stranger. We quickly sent them replacement product at our cost, explained how they could order from us in the future, avoiding such breakage, and also sent them swag such as our coffee cup and hat. This person proceeded to post about our response and praised us as being a wonderful company. It’s so easy to make people happy!
Can you share one of your favorite marketing or sales stories?
As I’ve mentioned, I’m perfectly willing to make a fool out of myself if it will sell another jar. During one of the first Canadian trade shows that I attended, I noticed that there would be a costume theme. I rented a Canadian Mountie costume from a local Halloween supply company and flew to Canada with it. When I appeared in the booth, two days in a row, fully decked out as a Canadian Mountie, the other attendees howled with laughter, praised me for my commitment to the country, and told me that it was a felony to impersonate a Mountie. True story . . .
Another story from our early years building our business in Canada: I was flying to Toronto to do three days of demos in a family-owned grocery chain that had given us our first chance in Eastern Canada. They told me “be sure to wear your cowboy hat and cowboy boots!” Unbeknownst to them, I owned neither of these classic Texas items. I literally went to a store in Fort Worth, Texas and purchased western boots and a hat in order to fly to Canada and pretend to be far more western than I actually was. Then again, my father and my cousin, both of whom have run production in our company for decades, were bull riders at one point, so it was in my genes I guess.
- Website: www.renfrofoods.com
- Instagram: instagram.com/mrsrenfros
- Facebook: facebook.com/mrsrenfros
- Twitter: twitter.com/mrsrenfros
- Youtube: youtube.com/user/mrsrenfros