One of the takeaways from last month’s Foodservice @ Retail Summit during the National Restaurant Association’s annual show was that consumers are asking for more options when it comes to Mexican options from their supermarket prepared foods departments.

Data revealed by Technomic principal Wade Hanson during the summit shows that Mexican foods topped the list of responses — at 22 percent — when consumers were asked where they would like to see more variety. 

That’s where companies like Del Real Foods come into play.

Del Real, headquartered in Mira Loma, CA, is a national supplier of authentic Mexican meals to supermarkets, delis, restaurants, club stores and retail stores. Herb Bowden, the company’s president, says restaurant chains like Chipotle have helped push Mexican cuisine in popularity across the country, not just in the Southwest.

“In the Midwest, barbacoa was not a common product five to seven years ago, or carnitas even, ten years ago,” Bowden says. “Restaurants like Chipotle and Q-Doba helped pave the way to help popularize these types of prdoucts”

And because consumers nationwide now have access and enjoy those Mexican specialties, they have started looking for them in their local grocery stores.

“People want to see it at retail, not only in a consumer packaged good, but also in the perimeter of the store, where they can buy it fresh and take it home and eat it,” Bowden says. “The perimeter of the store continues to grow and our products are a great fit for the prepared deli.”

A need for authenticity

One of Del Real’s calling cards, says marketing manager Socorro Morales, is the authenticity and quality of its food. 

“We’veand consumers have consistently told us that our products taste homemade or restaurant quality, this is because we make our products with traditional ingredients and cooking methods.” Morales says.

That’s important when trying to attract end consumers, whether they’re shopping at ethnic channel retailers or general market retailers. Shoppers at ethnic channel retailers know what to expect when it comes to authentic Mexican food, while more mainstream shoppers are increasing their desire for it.

“Consumers are changing and millennials love authentic foods,” Bowden says. “They’re looking for our kind of product too, so we fit well in the general market retailer.”

That authenticity has helped Del Real carve out a niche for itself, but it doesn’t come easy. Take the labor-intensive process used for the company’s popular tamales, for example. 

The masa begins as a 1,200-pound batch of non-GMO corn, steeped in lime-infused water and stone-ground into a dough. The picadillo is made by hand-trimming blocks of pork, slicing it, cooking it, shredding it and then combining it with a sauce of softened ground peppers. That is then added to a mix of pork broth, salt and spice blend.  

The entire concoction is then cooked and co-extruded with the masa to produce tamales that are hand-wrapped in corn husks and steam-cooked before being refrigerated and packaged.

“It’s one of our more complex items and some of our competition takes shortcuts and you just don’t get the same quality,” Bowden says. “Our products are hand-made and produced in relatively small batches. You’re not able to get the quality we produce unless you go through that hard work and labor-intense process.”

Del Real uses a labor-intensive process to bring authenticity to its tamales.
While the production of tamales is a more complicated process than most, Del Real also goes out of its way when making its other offerings. Meats are cooked in with open-kettle cooking, the same that is used in homes and restaurants. “We really go out of our way to maintain traditional cooking methods you would use at home or in a restaurant,” Bowden says. “What you end up getting is a product that is very authentic and has a very clean label because we don’t over-process it or use preservatives or additives.

“Many manufacturers will put all their raw materials in a bag, seal the bag and then cook the bag. You just don’t get the same textures and flavors coming through like you do when you cook it the way you would at home.”

That taste and quality has helped attract not only end consumers, but investors. Palladium Equity Partners, a private equity firm, made a significant investment in Del Real last year, a move that Bowden says was intended to supercharge the company’s growth with the future goal of expanding East with the intention of opening additional  locations. 

Investments like that happen when the quality of the food is the focus coupled with a growing category, Bowden says. 

“You can talk all day about products being authentic and great-tasting and you can look at these great beauty shots on the packaging,” he says. “But every single presentation that was made to potential investors included heating the food up and serving it and they were amazed and the quality of the food.   

Supermarket success

Morales says a growing number of people looking for help with home meals has helped boost Del Real’s business in supermarket prepared foods departments. 

“A lot of consumers we have spoken with tell us that they are looking for meal starter solutions especially when they only have a few minutes to prepare a meal for their family.” she says. Our products offer a great option for people who crave authenticity and do not want to compromise when time is tight.” 

Among the recently popular items are those tamales. Del Real extended its tamales line about eight years ago and has seen continued growth every year since.

“Tamales are really gaining a lot of momentum in the US, especially Mexican tamales,” Bowden says. “We have seen tamale sales continue to increase even beyond the holiday season when most consumers enjoy them most.”

A big part of that is the complexity of creating authentic Mexican dishes from scratch and the labor saved by supermarkets when using a supplier like Del Real. Take for instance carnitas, which require a four-hour process to cook from scratch. If a supermarket is suddenly cleaned out of ready-to-eat carnitas thanks to a nearby office party, they’re not doomed for the rest of the day.

“If somebody comes in at 4 p.m. and buys all the carnitas, they just have to go to the back and put ours in a hot water bath or put in a combi-oven or microwave and they get that high-quality food you can serve in the hot deli,” Bowden says. 

True to its roots

The company’s R&D is driven by what is trending among its restaurant customers. An internal brainstorming process ends with presenting Del Real’s more mature retail and club new items to get feedback. 

“It’s driven by a combination of both pull and push type of situations,” Bowden says. “But we always try to develop items that are authentic. They have to be cooked in traditional methods and we don’t over-commercialize them.”

This is emphasized by the fact that the company’s ownership — the original founders from whom the original recipes come — are still involved. Long-time employees like Bowden, who has been with Del Real for 13 years, and Morales, in her 11th year, also play a huge roll.

“We’re kind of going through our mission statement today. We’re trying to boil down the essence of the company and it really does come down to the work ethic of the company and the humility of the owners,” Bowden says. “When I interview people, I tell them you have to leave your ego at the door. It’s a real special organization started as a family business that was passionate about people and the products that were being made. 

“One of my objectives is to make sure that we never lose that essence. That’s really our secret sauce.”

It all adds up to high-quality food that can pull off the rare feat of seeing success on a national level while also continuing to earn the stamp of approval from people who grew up with authentic Mexican foods. 

“Even individuals who don’t know what authentic carnitas are, they know what good food is,” Bowden says. “And people who know what good Mexican food is are amazed. My wife emigrated from Mexico and she’ll tell me if it’s not right. She’s blown away by our products. The food quality is why I came to the company when it was very small and I’m still here.”