Manny Valdes ’85, Frontera Foods CEO, comes from a long tradition of entrepreneurs.
“My great-grandparents were in the food business in Spain, my grandparents were in the food business in Cuba, and my dad owned several grocery stores in Chicago,” Valdes said. “It has always been in our family, so it was a natural career for me to pursue.”
Today, Valdes brings the acclaimed Mexican flavors of master chef Rick Bayless’ Chicago-based restaurant, Frontera Grill, to more than half of the grocery stores across the nation. The packaged food line, which began with just five salsas, has grown to more than 70 products, including gourmet Mexican salsas and seasoning sauces for everyday Mexican meals.
“For most Americans, the Mexican foods they know and love are interpretations of the traditional dishes. Burritos, nachos, and combination plates were inspired by Mexico, but created in California and Texas,” Valdes said. “We are now venturing into more traditional Mexican flavors and dishes. It’s common to see words like chipotle, carnitas, and barbacoa in many restaurant menus. We’re happy to have led this new understanding and appreciation for Mexican flavors. It’s part of our company mission. We’re pushing people’s taste buds and they love it.”
After graduating from Illinois State with a degree in applied computer science, Valdes married his high school sweetheart, Conchita, and accepted a job with Arthur Andersen & Co. in Chicago. The couple’s home was four blocks from Frontera Grill. From the first time they ate at Frontera, they knew they had found something special.
“We were always exploring new restaurants,” Valdes said. “We fell in love with Frontera. We loved the food and loved the environment. We had never had Mexican food the way Rick Bayless had made it.”
Valdes built a career in technology for the next six years at Arthur Andersen. He traveled across the globe for projects in Hong Kong and Venezuela. Valdes relished the opportunity to interact with different people and companies. But he especially loved to work with clients such as Quaker Oats and Kraft Foods.
“Not that I didn’t love the other industries I worked with, whether they were in transportation or banking, but I loved food and there was something about it that really spoke to me,” Valdes said.
In 1992 Valdes decided to enroll at Northwestern University to broaden his knowledge beyond technology. One particular assignment challenged Valdes and his classmates to write a business plan for anything they could imagine. Valdes wrote his plan for a packaged foods business based on Frontera Grill. After graduating with his MBA, he accepted a brand manager position at Kraft Foods.
But Valdes never forgot about the business plan. In fact, he thought about it frequently as he and his wife used Frontera as an extension of their own living room, entertaining visiting relatives at the restaurant and even holding client meetings there. Finally, one evening while the couple was dining at Frontera, Valdes introduced himself to Bayless and shared his plan.
The rest, Valdes said, is history. In 1997 Valdes began putting the plan for the Frontera packaged food brand into motion. Though that is not to say it was easy. There were plenty of detractors when Valdes announced Bayless was interested in partnering with him.
“It is kind of an interesting phenomenon,” Valdes said. “When you share a business idea with most people, they will instinctively try to talk you out of pursuing it. It’s rare to find encouragement and coaching. You need to understand going into the project that detractors and cynics are part of the entrepreneurial challenge. Look for supporters. They really do exist. And do your own research and validate the idea yourself.”
Today, Valdes and his team at Frontera are focused on expanding their product line. Valdes encourages his employees to think first about what their families and friends would like to eat, rather than try to guess what would play well in the market.
“Let’s create from within,” Valdes said. “That’s our mantra. It’s really trying to identify what we want today, what is it that makes us happy, what tastes good, etc. Then we bring it to the broader world and see if they agree with us. It’s a very different way to bring products to the market.”
Valdes has found his passion overseeing Frontera’s package food line as well as the Frontera Hospitality Group, which includes several fine dining and quick service restaurants. Though his current role may seem far from his roots in technology, Valdes still finds value in skills he acquired at Illinois State.
“When I interview people, whether they are just coming out of college or have experience, I am less concerned with their specific knowledge and more concerned with how well they can think critically and how they can problem-solve,” Valdes said. “My degree at Illinois State was the foundation for it. I tell people that all of the time.”
Learn more about Frontera at RickBayless.com.