July 15, 2020

13th Generation in New Mexico Continues to Prosper with Chilies

New Mexico Member Profile

The Baca Family

Bueno Foods

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Member Since 2014

The Baca Family of New Mexico has much to be proud of as they have very deep roots in their home state, continue to build a thriving business as their family firm approaches its 70th anniversary, and just may well be the most well educated family in agriculture.

“We can trace our roots back to the 1600s,” says Gene Baca, who is senior vice president of Bueno Foods and runs the company with his sister Jackie, who serves as president. The ownership is split primarily among him and his four sisters. The five Baca siblings have all been involved in the company in many material ways over the years, with four of them still playing very active roles.

While the family’s farming roots no doubt also date back to the 1600s as farming was a way of life for virtually everyone in New Mexico four centuries ago, Bueno Foods, or at least its recipes, can be traced to the late 1800s. “My grandmother grew up in Hatch, New Mexico, and it is still many of her recipes that we use today,” Gene said of the recipes his grandmother learned from her ancestors.

Of course, Hatch is famous for its eponymous chile, and the New Mexican chile was the mainstay for many dishes in those days and ever since. But Gene’s grandparents had talents far exceeding the ability to make excellent chile-based dishes. His grandmother was also an educated woman and a teacher, and his grandfather was an entrepreneur. They were also prolific in their family-making endeavor as they produced 13 children: 10 sons and three daughters.

Almost all the brothers served in the military during World War II, with three of them—August, Ray and Joseph—emerging on the other side with the idea of starting a business, as encouraged by their father. They first formed a small grocery store in Albuquerque called The Ace Food Store and started selling some prepared foods, such as tamales and tortillas, relying on their mother’s recipes. It was difficult to compete with the ever-expanding, burgeoning supermarkets so the three brothers concentrated on manufacturing, again using their mother’s recipes.

In 1951, Bueno Foods was started on the three-acre parcel owned by the three brother’s parents, with the kitchen of the family home serving as the production hub. Dishes favored by the local Hispanic community were the initial items, including the flame-roasted chile that New Mexicans loved. Though the product line has grown tremendously over the years, the top sellers have remained the same. For the first 30 years, the company expanded with new facilities being built on the original property to accommodate the growth. “We started in the kitchen but eventually built a little factory,” Gene said.

By the early 1980s, there was no more room for expansion and Bueno Foods purchased a 25-acre plot in south Albuquerque where it still sits today. That is when rapid growth began and when the well-educated children of Joseph and Marie Baca started to come to work for the company and take over leadership roles. Joseph was the youngest of the three brothers and it is his family lineage that carries on the business today. Both August and Ray had children, but their offspring pursued other interests. Joe’s children, however, all grew up in the business, working odd jobs at the plant in middle school and high school and even earlier. Gene believes it was this close connection that led him and his siblings to form a bond with the family company and become more materially involved as the years went on.

Gene credits his grandmother and mother, who also was a school teacher, for instilling the power of education into the five Baca siblings. “It wasn’t enough that we received college degrees,” he said. “It was expected that we would get graduate degrees.”

Jacqueline (Jackie) Baca, an M.B.A. graduate of the University of New Mexico, joined Bueno Foods in the late 1970s on a full-time basis and was named president in 1986. Gene graduated from the University of New Mexico and then received his law degree from Harvard in the mid-1980s. He began working for Bueno Foods in the early 1980s as his father’s right-hand man with the intention of coming into the fold full-time upon law school graduation. Catherine holds a biology degree from the University of New Mexico and a master’s in public health from Harvard. She is also a pediatrician and is vice president of technical services and leads the company’s research and development department. Ana is a published writer and graduate of Stanford University and received her masters from the University of New Mexico. She is vice president of marketing and communications. Marijo Baca is retired from a career in social work, but she has a master’s degree in social services, and in the 1980s, she moved to Denver and opened that market for Bueno Foods.

The company facility has been expanded and updated several times in the last few decades with the number of employees during its peak season doubling in that time frame. Gene did not release annual sales numbers but said Bueno Foods is 15 times larger than it was when they moved into their current facility in 1984. He said the biggest challenge the company has had is managing that growth and handling the issues that come with scaling up production.

He said the company started by making home-made products, literally in the home. The goal is to achieve that same quality while scaling up and using machines to create the same flavors. The company has six product lines: prepared foods, green chile products, tortillas, frozen red chile items, dry chile pods and powders, and sauces.

While New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona are their traditional core markets, they have expanded across the country. They still source 95 percent of their chiles from New Mexico. In fact, the Bacas are instrumental in New Mexico continuing to thrive as a chile-producing state. Gene and several other individuals started the New Mexico Chile Association in 2006 to save the industry, which had seen a major drop in acreage. In fact, Gene served as president of the association for the first six years and has remained an active supporter of the association ever since. “We created a New Mexico certification program for chiles grown here, which was very important,” he said.

There is also a Hatch Chile certification program, which has helped popularize that item.

As Gene peruses the New Mexico landscape, he sees the same major challenges that plagues agriculture from coast to coast: overregulation. He notes that many New Mexico legislators have less connection with the food industry than they once did and do not have the same regard for business enterprises. In fact, it is this realization that led him to Western Growers. As a founding member of the chile association, he became acquainted with Western Growers and has greatly admired the work and advocacy the organization does on behalf of agriculture. When given the opportunity to be part of the association, Bueno Foods jumped at the chance. “I am super impressed with all that Western Growers does. I’m a big advocate of Western Growers and it’s a good partnership that we (the New Mexico Chile Association) have had with them.”