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Tony Liberto: A family empire built on nachos

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Tony Liberto

SHAVANO PARK — Tony Liberto smiles when he calls himself “a cheesy kind of guy.” He’s proud of it.

As the president and CEO of Liberto Specialty Co. and Ricos, Liberto manages a 110-year-old family business that has grown into a multimillion-dollar global snack empire.

Flavored popcorn, nacho chips, snow cone syrup, jalapeños, dill pickles, roasted peanuts and cans of Ricos cheese sauce line the shelves of the Liberto Cash & Carry  Store, next to the company’s sleek, art-filled headquarters in Southtown. A visit to the store and the small Ricos Museum in the main building just across the parking lot is a great way to get a sense of the company’s history and down-home flavor.

What you might not see, and what many don’t realize, is the sheer size of the business centered in this low-profile space.

Today, the enterprise — which got its start in 1909 when 16-year-old Italian immigrant Rosario Liberto arrived in Texas — is a $120 million-a-year powerhouse, manufacturing and selling products in movie theaters, stadiums, convenience stores and grocery chains in 50 states and 57 countries.

Tony Liberto represents the fourth generation of the family to carry on the business.

“When I was 5 or 6, my dad (Frank Liberto) did concessions at the rodeo in Freeman Coliseum for a couple of years, and he had me and my sister Denise back in the beer-refilling rooms, taking beers out of cases and putting them into these big metal tubs of ice with ropes around the handles that the sellers would carry in the stadium. I just remember how cold my hands were,” Tony Liberto said. “I guess that was my first job.”

Hard work goes with the business.

Rosario Liberto, the patriarch of the clan, started with the Crescent City Market, later Liberto Market and Grocery, selling Italian spices and meats, olives and coffee. When the circus came to town, he used his equipment to roast peanuts, and by 1921 he advertised 400,000 pounds of peanuts sold.

The Depression bankrupted the business, but by the mid-1930s his son, Enrico Liberto, revived it as Liberto Specialty Co. He passed his powerful work ethic along to son Frank Liberto, who took the reins in the 1950s.

Tony Liberto, sister Denise Pfeiffer and brother Rick Liberto grew up mostly in their parents’ home near Castle Hills. Today he and his wife of 21 years, Catherine, make their home in Shavano Park. Like his father, Tony attended Central Catholic High School, and his son, Nicolas, is a senior.

He always knew he would work for the family company.

“Growing up, I saw the big picture, the legacy. I saw my grandfather build the legacy for my dad,” he said.

His father struck gold for the business with the idea of concession nachos – creamy golden cheese sauce poured over tortilla chips and topped with a few jalapeño rings. The company got its first nacho stand at Arlington Stadium in the 1970s.

“They were an overnight success,” Liberto said.

When broadcaster Howard Cosell went wild for nachos on “Monday Night Football,” a snack star was born. Frank Liberto developed Ricos, named for his father, as a subsidiary of Liberto’s, and today Ricos is the bulk of the business. Its nachos and other products are sold worldwide, with Mexico the biggest international market.

Tony Liberto took on the leadership role in 2006.

“We’re the biggest company nobody knows about in retail,” he said. “Ricos has two of the top-five-selling cheese sauce items in grocery stores across the U.S.”

The company is always adding new products and flavors. The latest ad campaign asks “How Do You Nacho?”

In 2010, the company headquarters moved from South Flores Street back to its South Presa Street property and built its present base.

“We love it here. Southtown is such a great place. It’s so beautiful, low stress, with great neighbors and neighborhoods developing all around,” Tony said.

Even as it expands, the company has retained its family feel. Tony’s niece Megan MacDiarmid, Ricos marketing services manager, has worked full-time for 13 years.

As children, “My brother and I would try to help out, but we were just little kids,” said the fifth-generation entrepreneur. “Once we asked to be paid and we thought, ‘This is amazing, we are going to make so much money!’ and at the end of the day grandfather gave us a penny and told us we had to earn our money. Then he gave me my own little time card, and I would clock in and out.”

Frank Liberto died in November 2017, and Pat, his wife of 60 years, followed just three months later. But their community involvement continues. In addition to working with Central Catholic, the family supports the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Most of all, their legacy lives on in their descendants. This summer, two more fifth- generation Libertos, Denise’s younger daughter Madeline Pfeiffer and Tony’s daughter Brianna, have internships at the company.

Even employees feel like family.

“We’re a big company with a strong family feel,” said Charlie Gomez, Ricos vice president of specialty markets and a 20-year employee. “Frank was great to work for – a teacher at heart, as well as a successful businessman. Tony has continued the legacy, and steered us through to the next level.”

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