Doug Renfro
Doug Renfro, president of Renfro Foods, at the Winter Fancy Food Show

SAN FRANCISCO — Ghost pepper has become all the rage in recent years, but this trendy flavor was on Doug Renfro’s radar nearly a decade ago. That’s when the president of Renfro Foods, parent company of Mrs. Renfro’s salsas, began considering using the pepper in a new product.

“I was watching ghost pepper for two years, and I saw it in a chocolate bar and thought, ‘Okay, I think it’s time,’” Mr. Renfro told Food Business News. “My dad and my uncle thought I was insane.”

Mrs. Renfro’s Ghost Pepper Salsa, which launched in 2010, has become a hot seller for the Fort Worth, Texas-based company. Another, more recent success is a craft beer flavored salsa, made with Rahr Texas Red Amber Ale, plus various peppers. Renfro Foods showcased that variety at the Winter Fancy Food Show, held Jan. 21-23 in San Francisco.

Mrs. Renfro's ghost pepper and craft beer salsa
Mrs. Renfro's Ghost Pepper Salsa and Craft Beer Salsa have performed well for the company.

Renfro Foods was established by Mr. Renfro’s grandparents in 1940 as a distributor of packaged spices and pepper sauces, then flavored syrups, then Dixieland Chow Chow, a popular blend of cabbage, bell peppers, sugar, spices and vinegar. In 1972, Renfro Foods acquired the recipes of a Mexican-style hot sauce maker and began selling taco sauces.

At that time, Mr. Renfro worked in production, “doing nasty jobs, so I got the heck out of here and worked corporate accounting and finance for about seven or eight years,” he recalled. “When I came back 25 years ago, we had mild, medium, and hot picante sauce and the green taco sauce. Those were our items, and the world didn’t know anything else.

“I started looking around, and I threw some black beans and habanero pepper in one day, and that was wildly exotic... You try all this stuff, and a lot of times it doesn’t go well, but occasionally you get a ghost pepper or a craft beer homerun that keeps you going.”

Mrs. Renfro's Habanero Salsa
Habanero Salsa is Mrs. Renfro's top-selling s.k.u.

Of the approximately 600 salsa brands sold in the United States, Mrs. Renfro’s ranks ninth in dollar sales, Mr. Renfro said.

“I call us the biggest little guys,” he said. “Everybody above us is a division of a multibillion dollar company, basically. So, we’re not a threat to anybody. If we doubled we’d still be No. 9. We also co-pack a couple brands in the top 20 or so.”

In an interview, Mr. Renfro discussed food trends, innovation and toeing the line between leading edge and “bleeding edge.”

Mrs. Renfro's cheese sauces
Mrs. Renfro's also offers a line of nacho cheese sauces in Medium, Medium Hot and Scary Hot varieties.

Food Business News: As the director of product development at Renfro Foods, what food trends are you interested in right now?

Doug Renfro: My job at a company like ours is to be creative but not what I call the “bleeding edge”... where you lose all your money by being too early. As an example of that, we certainly wouldn’t do a fire-roasted horseradish salsa. Somebody might buy it once as a White Elephant gift.

And we can’t just do mild because that’s ridiculous, and everyone has it. You’ve got to have one, but there’s nothing new about it. That’s why we’re always looking in that middle ground.

But you were early on the ghost pepper craze.

Mr. Renfro: Our goal is to be that guy on a unicycle — just almost falling off. We were a little too early on chipotle, and our own staff couldn’t pronounce it. It was brutal. It was ugly. They were saying “chip-pot-all.”

Mrs. Renfro's chipotle salsa and barbecue sauce
Renfro Foods was an early adopter of the now popular chipotle pepper.

Relative to the everyday grocery store item we’re pretty leading edge. I’m the one getting the watermelon black pepper cumin margarita. I’m looking at all the weird stuff to see what might translate over to us at some point.

You must love attending shows like Winter Fancy Food to walk around and see so much innovation.

Mr. Renfro: I absolutely love the two Fancy Food Shows and Expo West in Anaheim. Those are my favorite times of year. I see amazing things. I get paid to have really nice meals. If you see me at a big classic steakhouse, it’s because a supplier made me go. I’m going to be at the fusion places or the organic or the boutique or the Vietnamese-Italian-Latin place — that’s where I want to be to see what’s going on on the edges.

How do you spot food trends?

Mr. Renfro: I travel a fair amount, and even within my own city, I just keep my eyes open. Go to the local farmers market, and somebody’s there and they’ve combined raspberry serrano tequila. There’s edgy restaurants, street tacos are all the rage; they tend to have cool sauces.

Mrs. Renfro's salsas
Mrs. Renfro's offers 20 different salsa varieties.

And then I get probably 10 online newsletters in the food business. I get physical magazines. It’s kind of like being a sponge. You’re looking constantly, tasting, smelling, shopping, knowing 99% of it is a waste, but the 1% that sticks is really valuable.

How did your craft beer salsa come about?

Mr. Renfro: We have a local craft brewer, and he wanted to do something in that genre, but he makes beer, we make salsa, so neither one of us needs to be doing the other one. So we thought, let’s take a keg of his beer, put it in a batch, cross-brand it and he can help cross-promote it. And while we’re at it, put it in some guajillo chili and different things to make it interesting.

Now I’m writing up the initial recipes for our next item, which only Becky and my cousin James and I are the only ones who know what it is right now, and my assistant who’s been with me 10 years on R.&D. It will either be a homerun or a strikeout or somewhere in between, but it won’t see the light of day for six months. I call it cooking with Microsoft Excel, initially, because if it costs too much it doesn’t matter how good it is.

Mrs. Renfro's craft beer salsa
Mrs. Renfro's Craft Beer Salsa is made with Rahr Texas Red Amber Ale and various peppers.

When you’re this far ahead of the curve, do you run into sourcing challenges?

Mr. Renfro: Absolutely. I found a source, a pretty reputable company (for ghost pepper). They were a second-tier ingredient supplier. I signed a contract for a year, explained to them how critical it would be to not run out of it. The product exploded. My second P.O., they send me a note, “Uh, we’re out, we’re not going to have any more for another 10 months.”

And after I had a heart attack, I looked around, and we worked with suppliers who had family in that area of the world, and one of them bailed us out and was able to keep us supplied with it until I found somebody.

And as things get hot like that, then the bigger players step up. But when you have to talk about planting the seeds, figuring out how the plants will react, and harvesting … that’s a big lead time. Now I’ve got a guy who is super trustworthy and takes care of me and I can put my reorder point really low, but for the longest time I had to order six months of ghost pepper at a time and have $50,000 to $70,000 tied up in inventory at all times because I never knew when I’d get it again.

Mrs. Renfro's Mango Habanero salsa
Mrs. Renfro's Mango Habanero Salsa is the company's third best-selling product.

What's your best selling s.k.u.?

Mr. Renfro: Habanero. I don’t eat it. It hurts me. I like Mango Habanero, which is not nearly as hot, and that’s our No. 3 item.  But the red tomato-based habanero salsa has been No. 1 for a long time. And the green jalapeño-based green salsa is No. 2.

Can you give an example of a flavor you tried that just didn't work?

Mr. Renfro: We have a Pomegranate Chipotle. And, of course, I was thinking POM Wonderful, antioxidants, all the rage. We sell thousands of them, but on a relative basis, not many. At this level, if you’re not selling hundreds of thousands of them or more, it’s not really a success. Bless its heart; it’s the little runt of the litter.

But still hanging on.

Mr. Renfro: Yeah, it’s hanging on. It’s not on life support, but I’m watching it.