At the end of a big meal – appetizer, main course, a bottle of wine – comes the dessert cart. Perhaps a heaping plate of three-layer cake, filled with custard and topped with delicate flowers made of topping? By the time you’re finishing up that happy ending, you may want to send your compliments to the pastry chef. Unfortunately, these days the pastry chef is probably hundreds of miles away.
Faced with small kitchens and even smaller work forces, more and more restaurants are turning to pre-prepared pastry products, everything from frozen dough to completely prepared and iced cakes. And stepping into the gap to meet the needs of both the restaurants and their patrons is Rich’s®, an over 60-year-old international company based in New York that has gone global along with many of the rest of the world’s large companies.
Mexico, a country known for its fancy cakes and all-around love of sweet things, did not escape Rich’s® global gaze, and today, Rich’s® subsidiary Productos Rich brings the same proud Rich’s® tradition to Mexico, along with a few peculiarly Mexican twists. Confronting some serious challenges along the way, Productos Rich has, in the end, met with some sweet success.
The whip topping that started it all If you want to go all the way back in time to the beginning of Rich’s®, you would find yourself in Buffalo, N.Y., at the end of World War II, by the side of the eponymous Robert E. Rich. Rich had just completed a stint in the War Food Administration in Washington, and it was there that he was introduced to non-dairy whipped toppings manufactured from soy beans.
Rich began manufacturing and commercializing his own non-dairy topping – which he dubbed, simply enough, Rich’s® Whip Topping – and it wasn’t long before he was building an empire. From the whip topping, he moved on to invent a whole variety of pre-prepared food that built Rich’s® reputation as a frozen pastry company.
In 1950 Rich’s® invented the first commercial line of frozen éclairs, and in 1969, Rich’s® began marketing frozen baked goods. Rich’s® invented the Freeze Flo process in 1980, a technique that allows frozen foods to remain soft. And more recently, in the 1990s, Rich’s® began taking its frozen food empire international.
It was around that time – 1994 – that Rich’s® took a big step into Mexico. Rich’s® didn’t just open an office and send a sales team, like it would do in many other countries in the world. Rich’s® acquired, through a joint venture, a manufacturing facility in Toluca, Mexico, which was the first frozen dough manufacturing operations the company would own.
The timing of that move, however, turned out to be difficult, said José Luis Lechón, the vice president of marketing for Productos Rich. It is true that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had just gone into effect and many U.S. companies were making a run for the border and the cheap manufacturing opportunities on the other side.
But Rich’s®, for the most part, wanted to make its pastries for sale in the Mexican market. The financial crisis that followed a few years after Rich’s® began its joint venture, therefore, were “difficult years,” Lechón said.
“We made a commitment to the Mexican market,” he said. “This was a test of fire for us, because committed ourselves to the long term. And we survived.”
Rich’s®, Lechón said, outlasted many other companies that, faced with the financial crisis, decided to fold up shop and cut their losses. It was an important moment for Rich’s® because it sent a signal to its customers in Mexico: Rich’s® was there to stay.
Today, Rich’s® has not one, but three manufacturing facilities in Mexico. The first one is the original, which remains to this day in Toluca. It is still the biggest of the facilities, and it takes up the majority of the heavy lifting, making frozen dough, cake layers, and different toppings and icings, as well as finished products like brownies, muffins, pound cakes and decorated cakes. Nearly everything is frozen.
While the factory in Toluca occupies itself with churning out the raw material of the ad hoc pastry chef, the second factory, which is located in Mexico City, is a more specialized facility. It is there that Productos Rich makes its line of Rich ‘n Easy™ cakes, high-end finished products with the icing and decorating included.
“They offer our customers a delicious moment through a cake of excellent quality with a (preparation) method that is very easy for the operator,” Lechón said.
The final factory, also located in Toluca, is a joint venture with another company that produces frozen dough for both sweet breads and savory breads. Also, in addition to its factories, Productos Rich operates its own fleet of vehicles and distribution centers, which together make it possible for Rich’s® to cover all of Mexico.
What exactly is Rich’s® distributing around to the cities and towns of Mexico? Some classic products of course get passed around quite a bit. Rich’s® Whip Topping is a popular item in the many forms in which it has sprang up since the original invention. Likewise, other Rich’s® products like Bettercreme® and various pastry toppings and fillings also fill up the delivery trucks, along with the pre-made cakes, cake layers, and dough that make a chef’s life easier.
But Rich’s® isn’t a producer of cookie products. As it has undergone the process of entering the market in more than 70 different countries around the world, Rich’s® has learned well the lesson that companies can be international, but tastes are still local. Mexico has been no exception.
In Mexico, Rich’s® has met with enormous success with its product Tres Riches®, an easy-to-use product that is used for the characteristic creamy syrup in a favorite Mexican cake called tres leches. Likewise, Rich’s® has paid special attention to the cake decorating that is such a strong tradition in Mexico.
“We have the cutting-edge technology in terms of the process and the products,” Lechón said. “However, we are also aware that the food is local.”
In a sense, it’s an illustration of the close ties that Rich’s® must maintain to the culture in order to carry out the very unique job that it’s set itself to do. Rich’s® is in the interesting position of having two customers, although one doesn’t know it. Technically, its only customers are the restaurants, pastry shops and bakeries where it sells its products.
In that sense, Rich’s® is a problem-solver as much as it is a pastry manufacturer. “We don’t just sell products,” Lechón said. “We sell solutions, as well as emotions.”
That means that Rich’s® gets its hands into the dough along-side the chefs it is supposed to be helping. It analyzes the market’s needs to find out what kind of products would make life in the kitchen faster, simpler, more productive, and in the end more profitable.
Of course, in the end, there’s always that little matter of the second customer that Rich’s® serves that’s just as important as the first: the person who eats the cake or the pastry, and gives it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Rich’s® can make pastry products all day long that are efficient, help, time-saving, and simple.
But they also have to taste good and be as tantalizing as possible. Cakes are often created to celebrate emotional occasions, so it is important to present just the right product to the consumer.
Research and new products
Serving both of those customers is where Rich’s® research and development department comes in. On one level, Rich’s® is constantly checking on restaurant trends and analyzing what kind of products could help. For example, these days kitchens are getting smaller, Lechón said, to make room for more tables. Also, it’s hard to get good help these days, and an experienced pastry chef who knows all the ins and outs of making a knock-out cake is especially hard to come by.
Along with those trends, Rich’s® analyzes the evolving tastes of the people who are actually consuming the products. On that front, Lechón said there is a tendency toward “indulgence:” People want to be able to partake of sinful products that truly give a luxurious feeling. Paradoxically, the parallel trend is one toward more healthy products with extra fiber and vitamins.
Rich’s® has products to meet all trends up and down the line, and it’s coming out with new ones. The Rich ‘n Easy™ ready-made cakes are getting more popular the more pinched the kitchens get, Lechón said. Also, Rich’s® is going back to its roots a bit with a new cooking cream called Versatié®, which Lechón said can be baked, boiled, whipped, added to soup, and mixed in with dough.
“It is enormously versatile,” Lechón said, hence the name.
Opportunities all around
In a sense, Productos Rich’s® is also heading back to its roots. The company sees a big opportunity today to the north, where the Hispanic population is ever growing. At the moment, Productos Rich is looking to expand its exports business, Lechón said.
Exports to Central and South America are also on the rise, and Rich’s® new identity as an international company gives it more cultural and creative clout than many of its competitors.
Rich’s® has some big challenges in front of it, especially as world commodity prices continue to go through the roof. But Lechón said the company’s focus on family like service and dedication to innovation will keep it going strong.
“We worry about our customers making money through their businesses because we want to grow together with them,” Lechón said “And for that, the key is the service, the passion for innovation, and the ability to understand the needs of our clients and our customers.”