Growing up in Texas, a high school-age Charlie Gomez’s weekends were often devoted to two things: Sports and movies. Years down the line, he’s made the latter into a career. Over a period of 20 years, Gomez has helped theaters expand their concessions offerings as Vice President of Ricos Products, which has played a key part in bringing concessions nachos out of Texas and into the wider U.S.. For his decades of service to the industry, Gomez has been named this year’s Mickey Warner Award recipient by the National Association of Concessionaires, honoring their 2020 winners at NAC ReTreat Week.
Gomez speaks with pride of the history of Ricos, a family-owned company based out of San Antonio, Texas. In 1976, he explains, Ricos founder Frank Liberto was inspired by a meal he saw in a restaurant in Eagle Pass, Texas: fried tortillas, cheese sauce, jalapeños on top. “Frank saw that and took that idea and commercialized it, making it a concession nacho”—first in 1976 at Arlington Stadium, then the home of the Texas Rangers.
23 years later, in 1999, Charlie Gomez joined the Ricos family. He’d previously been working at a food brokerage business owned by his father; Ricos was one of the companies they represented, and Gomez had known the family since he was a teen. When his father retired, a move over to Ricos was natural. He started working with food distributors, shifting in 2003 and 2004 to working with theater circuits.
“The family was extremely good to me,” Gomez recalls—starting with his the late Frank Liberto, Gomez’s biggest mentor outside his parents. Frank and son Tony Liberto, current president and CEO of Ricos, “took me under their wings and showed me the ropes on the concessions side of the business.” The rules he learned from the Libertos, says Gomez, are simple and time-tested: The customer is always right. Make sure you have a high quality of product. And the Golden Rule: Treat others as you’d like to be treated. “It’s a rule in the Bible, and we live it here every day…. That was the biggest thing Frank taught me, to live life in that way.”
Queso isn’t a tough sell in Texas—but it took sales knowledge to expand the product outside of the American Southwest. Gomez estimates that a Ricos product—whether chips, cheese sauce, jalapeño peppers, or something else—can be found in a little over half of the top-20 circuits in the United Sates. (Texas-based Cinemark is their largest customer.) As of Frank Liberto’s passing in 2017, the concession nacho was in over 57 countries worldwide.
The key to that expansion, Gomez explains, has been in explaining to theaters how the concessions nacho can help their overall menu sales. The Ricos nacho is designed to “whet your appetite” but not completely sate it, so customers might want a little something else afterwards. That little something might be candy—a nice counterpart to the kick of the nachos. That kick is key in another way: driving beverage sales. Even as Ricos experiments with different cheese formulas—like white cheese or Monterey Jack—what they’ll always keep is “a little zest, because you really want to complement the nachos with your beverage sales. That’s first and foremost in our minds.”
It’s tough to sell Ricos products if people can’t sample it—which is why, pre-2020, Gomez could often be found at trade shows and conducting face-to-face meetings with exhibitor clients, which he singles out as his favorite part of the job. (Trade show attendees might be recognize the Nacho Truck.) Among Ricos’ exhibitor partners, Gomez singles out two executives as indispensable professional collaborators and friends: Philip Couch—EVP Food & Beverage at Cinemark, Ricos’ largest client—and Larry Etter, SVP at Malco Theatres, which in 2001 became Gomez’ first theater customer. Says Gomez, “You leave a conversation [with Etter]—two things. One, feeling really, really good about yourself because he listens to you and offers a ton of help. And two, you get something done. He tells you… what’s the best way your items can help his business.”