Fort Worth company finds international market is hot

A few weeks ago Doug Renfro of Renfro Foods packed up more than 500 boxes of the company’s salsa and other assorted products and shipped them out the door. Not unusual. Happens every day at the 73-year-old family-owned firm that boasted annual sales of more than $16 million in 2012. What was different about this shipment? It was headed to China. “Is there that big of a market in China that wants to eat salsa?” Renfro asked rhetorically during a recent visit. He shrugged. “It could be our last order or it could be the start of something big for us,” he said. Renfro Foods is hardly alone in tapping the export market. Texas’ merchandise export sales in the first half of 2013 outpaced the 2012 figures for many destinations, including Colombia (up 40 percent), Venezuela (up 19 percent), Taiwan (up 17 percent), Mexico (up 9 percent) and Canada (up 6 percent). Key merchandise export categories include petroleum products, computer and electronic products, chemicals, machinery manufactures and transportation equipment. Not sure whether Ghost Pepper Salsa belongs in the food or chemical category.

“These export numbers show that many Texas businesses continue to do well in their global sales,” said Steve Recobs, director of the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Houston. “In these challenging economic times, exporting is helping many businesses thrive. We’d like to help businesses with their exporting efforts.” The Export Assistance Center might help, but Renfro knows that the international market can be fickle. Take Canada. “When I came back [to the business] 20 years ago, we were doing $12,000 in a year in Canada – now it’s close to $300,000,” he said. When he first went to a Canadian food trade show, people asked what this “salsa” was. “And then they asked, ‘Why would you put a peach in it?’” Renfro said. But by finding a good distributor and continuing to market its products there, the company has made an impact in Canada. Sometimes the marketing can be a bit unusual. Vice President Becky Renfro Borbolla, for instance, stood at a trade show booth dressed as a queen to attract distributors. “You do what you have to do,” Renfro said. It also helps to have a good, solid distributor. Renfro Foods found success in Spain through distribution with Madrid-based grocery chain Taste of America and has picked up additional retailers – Carrefour, one of the largest hypermarket chains in the world, and Sorli Discau, a regional chain in Catalonia. Renfro Foods is hardly the only Fort Worth business to tap the international market. Justin Brands has expanded its international offerings as well.

But it’s not just Texas products that are seeing exports. In late July, Buxton rolled out retail market analyses for the Canadian marketplace. The Fort Worth-based data and analytics company plans to offer services to U.S. retailers expanding into Canada and to Canadian organizations looking to maximize their footprint in the Canadian market. “Our goal is to help retail and restaurant executives understand what strategic growth looks like in Canada, from understanding how many locations the entire country can support, all the way down to the market and trade-area level,” said Tom Buxton, founder and CEO of Buxton. For Renfro, the international market is a bit of a gamble, much like the company’s Ghost Pepper Salsa. Renfro pushed for the company to market that flavor, thinking it would be a niche product. The ghost pepper, or bhut jolokia in the Assamese language, has been certified by Guinness World Records as the world’s hottest chili pepper. Many specialty salsa manufacturers were selling it at a high price. “We test-marketed Ghost Pepper Salsa at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York and got a fantastic reception,” said Renfro. But he never expected it to become the company’s top seller. “The market lets you know what works,” he said.

InMarket is a column written from the perspective of a plugged-in business journalist about business happenings in and around Tarrant County. Got an idea for InMarket? Robert Francis can be reached at