Economy

If you buy guacamole at the store, this guy probably made it

FORT WORTH — At 65, an age when many enter retirement and strive to perfect that chip shot, Don Bowden decided to ramp up his tiny food processing venture by finding ways to keep pulped avocado fresher longer.

Twelve years and a hip replacement later, Bowden is king of store-bought guacamole with his Fresherized Foods, the Saginaw, Texas, company where he still goes to work every day.

By becoming the first American to commercially use an ultra-high-pressure food-processing technology, he developed homemade tasting dips with a remarkably long shelf life of 42 days.

And the market loves them.

Fresherized’s Wholly Guacamole brand controls an 83 percent market share, according to a survey by Information Resources. That helps explain why the company processes 2 million pounds of avocados every week in Mexico, Peru and Chile.

Annual sales, climbing at a rate of 30 percent annually the past six years, now stand at $120 million, said Tracey Altman, vice president of marketing. The closely held company — 70 percent owned by the Bowden family, 30 percent by management — does not disclose profits. It employs 1,500 people, about 50 of them in Tarrant County.

Bowden is a native of Fort Worth, where his father managed shoe sales at Everbodys Department Store, a discount house that was part of the Leonard Brothers retail operation downtown. Bowden attended Paschal High School, where basketball coach Charlie Turner called his older brother "Big Brain" after the boy made a wisecrack, leaving Don with the moniker "Little Brain."

"I got the worst nickname than anyone but Dan Jenkins," he said, referring to his classmate who would become a successful sportswriter and novelist.

With an accounting degree from Texas Christian University, Bowden joined an oil company. He lasted exactly three months in corporate America, he says. Working for others was not for him.

Bowden was running a road construction business with an Army Corp of Engineers contract in El Paso when he discovered the original Pancho’s Mexican Buffet and its all-you-can-eat approach, which was novel for a Tex-Mex restaurant.

He was so taken with the concept, Bowden and his dentist brother approached the owner about replicating it in North Texas. He grew the chain to 40 stores, serving as president for seven years before launching the Dos Gringos and Mercado Juarez restaurants.

As a purveyor of Tex-Mex food, Bowden spent 37 years trying to keep pricey guacamole fresh without using preservatives. Prolonged exposure to air can turn the iconic chip dip a brackish brown.

"My restaurants needed avocados year-round, and we wanted to stop waste," he explained. In 1989, Bowden decided to set up an avocado processing facility in Sabinas, Mexico, in a northern coal-mining area far from the fruit’s growing region but where his tortilla supplier offered free use of a house, he said.

At that time, avocado pulp packed in vacuum-sealed pouches had a shelf life of seven to 10 days, not nearly long enough for restaurants or supermarkets.

A consultant suggested that Bowden look into high-pressure technology from the Swedish engineering group ABB, which had not been commercially employed in the United States. He was eager to try it.

"We were the only customer," Bowden said. "No one could figure out how to use it. The first machine had a 17-liter (4.5-gallon) capacity and cost $167,000. But it broke down before we had a chance to send it down to Mexico.

"People came from Sweden and said, 'This machine will never work for you, but we will make one that will work — at our cost.’ It was a 50-liter (13-gallon) device for $875,000. They said that was their cost, but who knows?"

With the larger machine, the company could pressurize up to 60,000 pounds of avocado pulp in plastic pouches a day. The venture, then called AvoMex, did about $4 million in sales in its second year.

"We didn’t try to do guacamole," Bowden said. "Restaurants had their grandmother’s recipe, which according to them was the best in the world. "

Only in its third year of operation did it offer a retail guacamole product. Demand began outstripping supply.

"We knew we were maxed out with our machinery. Our next machine was 315 liters (83 gallons)," he said.

Today Fresherized has 11 high-pressure processing machines operating in Latin America. The ones with a 350-liter (92-gallon) capacity run $2.5 million each.

High-pressure processing, unlike heat treatments like pasteurization, causes little or no change in the appearance or nutritional value of the food because no chemical change occurs, according to Virginia Tech University’s High Pressure Laboratory. It works by submerging food in water and ramping up the pressure to 87,000 pounds per square inch — enough to kill listeria, the toughest food contaminant to control.

In 1997, Coppell-based Minyard Food Stores became the first supermarket chain to offer Bowden’s packaged guacamole. The company sold the dip under the generic-sounding "Classic" brand, and then later added "Mercado Juarez" to the label.

The big break came in 1999 from Albertsons, then among the country’s top three grocers.

Its Texas stores already had introduced Bowden’s product when its division sales manager, Steve Parnell, alerted Bowden to a Super Bowl party that would be attended by the top produce buyer in Boise, Idaho, the chain’s base.

Samples were shipped north.

They immediately got a thumbs up from the buyer, who instructed each division to offer Bowden’s guacamole.

"It was a tipping point for Don, because after that his national distribution through Albertsons really launched his volume and gave him a national customer," said Parnell, 46, who was later recruited to become Fresherized’s president.

Bowden had taken a hands-on marketing approach in Texas, which he would duplicate around the country, all too aware of consumer resistance to a prepared avocado product.

"Don got in his pickup truck and went from store to store," Parnell said. "He brought in his product and, standing there, served guacamole to every customer who walked by. He’d say, 'Hey ma’am, have you tried this? Yes or no?’

"A shopper would walk off about 10 feet, then say, 'Wow, where do I find this?’ "

The company chairman has personally done thousands of in-store samplings. Weeks after being hit by a car while walking his dog six years ago, Bowden was in an Albertsons near Keller on crutches with a broken leg, asking the manager to let him set up a table at the front of the store, Parnell said.

Albertsons’ orders boosted Bowden’s sales 50 percent, from $8 million to $12 million, he said. "But he had limited [high-pressure processing] equipment," Parnell said, "and was buying all that was available."

Meeting challenges

Bowden’s was the first U.S. company to commercially use high-pressure processing equipment. (A Japanese firm was the world’s first, with a jam product in 1990.)

"Don had the vision very early — hitting exactly the right product for HPP," said Glenn Hewson, global marketing director of Avure, a Kent, Wash., spinoff of what was once part of ABB. "So AvoMex, now Fresherized, became our largest single customer, and still we do a ton of work together."

As for other food applications, it can be far cheaper to use 4-cent-a-pound artificial preservatives than buy a million-dollar high-pressure machine, Avure’s Hewson acknowledged. "Our biggest competitor is chemicals."

Fresherized expanded into chilled salsa and will release a new product, a queso dipping sauce, which Altman said will be the first nationally distributed queso made of real cheese, not processed.

Bowden’s other big challenge was brand recognition.

"In 2003, we took 'Mercado Juarez’ off the label because no one could pronounce it," Parnell said.

It was renamed Avo Classic, he said, and "people could never remember it. But we couldn’t make enough to meet demand so there had not been branding concerns. It was all about how do we make more."

Consultants told the company: Put money in the Avo Classic brand or find another name.

Bowden expressed concern that if they didn’t come up with an effective brand name, some big food company like Del Monte would introduce a similar product and capture the market, Parnell recalled.

The chairman prevailed, and the company worked up five possible brand names, then couldn’t narrow the field. It resorted to a public contest. Wholly Guacamole emerged the winner, Parnell said. Dancing Iguana, an also-ran, has been used on a second line of Tex Mex dips.

Gearing up for the Super Bowl, the company’s biggest sales period of the year, refrigerated trucks will transport the chilled, high-pressure treated guacamole from Mexico.

To meet institutional demand, Fresherized expanded in 2007 to Lima, Peru. Last fall, it opened a plant in Chile, which is envisioned to supply Australia, Japan and other Pacific markets with frozen avocado products.

What the company hadn’t anticipated at all was that there would be domestic demand in Chile, since most Chileans eat their avocados fresh. Off the bat, Chile has been snarfing up 80 percent of production, Parnell said. When the facility is fully operational, he expects sales there to remain strong but settle at about 20 percent of output.

"They eat more avocado per capita than anyone," marveled Parnell. "They eat it on their hot dogs."

Back in Texas, Bowden is a big consumer of guacamole.

But to the shock of his marketing director, he told a reporter that his own product was "bland."

"I need to put some Tabasco sauce on it," Bowden said, explaining that the beauty of his product is that people can eat it however they like it.

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