Walker Foods Inc.
The year 2015 marks Walker Foods Inc.’s first 110-year anniversary, but the milestone is just one of many firsts for Walker Foods, the makers of the famous El Pato brand products. The Los Angeles-based company has been building a history of firsts since inception in 1905.
“Walker Foods is a true American success story,” shares Robert Walker, third-generation president and CEO of the company. “My grandfather, James Walker, started the company in 1905 and we believe to be the first company in the U.S. to mass produce and can salsa. Walker Foods was also the first company in the U.S. to export American-made salsa to Mexico, the first U.S. company, with a bilingual can and we were the first company in California to produce white vinegar.”
A beloved household name
Today, the third-generation, family-owned firm pumps out some 30 different products from El Pato hot tomato and enchilada sauce to bottled salsa picante to its Golden State brand hot chili peppers, vinegar and yellow mustard. Known for pure, natural ingredients, Walker Foods has become a beloved household name in the southwest, particularly in the Hispanic community.
“We produce a product that’s been part of the Hispanic fabric and culture here in the southwest for generations,” says Robert. “There have been many times I’m out wearing a company T-shirt with our signature El Pato [which means duck in Spanish] logo and someone walks up to me and says how their grandmother and their mother used the product in the kitchen. It’s been handed down as a culinary tradition and El Pato has a special place in our customers’ hearts. It goes well beyond brand identification –I’ve seen more loyalty to our product than any other in this category.”
No shortcut to leading quality
Along with the original yellow El Pato can, there have been some additions to the line up over the years: the green jalapeno salsas can, tomato sauce with jalapeno, red and green enchilada sauce, as well as bottled salsa picante, salsa picante con jalapeno, chipotle salsa picante and more. El Pato’s various products are household staples because of Walker Food’s dedication to top-notch ingredients and high-quality production.
“We cook our salsa just as you would in the kitchen before we put it in the can,” explains Robert. “It’s not packed cold and put in a retort, we have no retorts. The temperature level and the acidity are maintained so well that we’ve never had a health issue in the history of the product.”
Walker says El Pato’s competitors have tried to replicate the signature salsas and sauces but have come up short. “We’ve had competitors put out a cheaper version but they cannot duplicate El Pato because it’s the highest quality product in the category,” assures Robert.
First to third generation, maintaining a family feel
Robert, who jokes his veins bleed salsa, is actually of Irish decent. “My grandmother came to the states from Ireland,” he tells. As the oldest of James Walker’s grandchildren, Robert took the company reins 16 years ago, but has really been part of the business since childhood.
“My grandfather ran the company until he passed away in 1947, when my Uncle James stepped in, followed later by my father,” tells Robert. “In the meantime, my father had started his own vinegar business and he branched out into making mustard. He purchased land near my grandfather’s operation”
“I started working for him in the plant when I was 12 years old,” adds Robert. “Through summers in high school and college I did odd jobs and chores at the plant, sometimes reluctantly, but it taught me the ins and outs of the business.”
Robert now owns Walker Foods with his three cousins, Frank, Russell and Susan. “When my father passed away 16 years ago I left my job in the political world to merge the two businesses,” he recounts. “I made the decision to take on the responsibility and to keep the company going, mainly for my cousins and the dedicated, long-term employees who’ve made it all possible. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted – far from it because it’s been a godsend. The challenges are often trying running a business, but they’ve helped build me into a better person and above all, I owe everyone here for showing me the way.”
A longstanding team
Robert says it’s a genuine privilege to work with the Walker Foods family every day. At its 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in the heart of downtown L.A., Walker Foods employs 60 full-time staff members. “We’re still relatively small and it’s very much a family affair here,” explains Robert. “When people come here to work they generally stay. Our assistant plant manager has been here for 38 years and there are many employees who’ve been working with us for 20 years or more. Brothers and sisters, uncles and nephews, cousins –many team members are related in some way- it’s all part of the fabric of this company.”
Even through the depths of the recession, Robert says he did everything in his power to ensure his team remained. “There were no layoffs at Walker Foods through the recession,” he mentions. “It was first priority to keep people working, but it comes back to the fact that we’re a conservative firm. We don’t borrow money; if we have capital expansion, we pay for it out of our own reserves and we own this facility outright. We’ve always been self-sufficient and independent –that’s the way my grandfather wanted it when he built it from the ground up himself.”
Now after more than a century in operation, Walker Foods remains true to its foundation, while building business in many avenues. “Today, we work with some major food-industry clientele,” reveals Robert. “The biggest mustard customer we have is In-and-Out Burger. They use our mustard in their secret burger sauce and our vinegar is used by McDonalds.”
“We’re one of the top-selling canned tomato products here in California, vying to first place with national giants such as Hunt’s,” adds Robert. “El Pato is also carried in Wal-Mart stores nationwide.”
Beyond Pacific states, Walker Foods has entered markets in the greater southwest and Midwest, reaching as far as Chicago and beyond. “Our success is truly based in the people here and the pride they have in this business,” measures Robert. “We all believe in putting out a first-class product from contents to container.”
After more than 110 years, El Pato salsa and sauces are household staples and Walker Foods Inc. was not only one of the first to do it, but the first to do it with top-notch quality ingredients and passion.