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Posted on Tue, Jan. 9, 2006

Renfro Foods President Doug Renfro says the Fort Worth salsa maker should profit more this year because of its new computer system.
Government nudges maker of salsa into the computer age

Special to the Star-Telegram

Doug Renfro, president of Renfro Foods, found moving his family's company off the paper trail and into computer automation trickier than he may have thought.
And the obstacle wasn't software glitches or office wiring. It was the office culture.

Renfro's senior staff was OK with weekends camped at the office to solve bookkeeping problems. However tedious, in its 60 years, the Fort Worth maker of salsas and sauces never lost money that way.

The senior staff was computer-phobic, Renfro said.

"For the longest time, my uncle thought computers were the Antichrist," he said.

Then Renfro Foods got a convincing nudge from the federal government.

This month, the Food and Drug Administration will start requiring all food manufacturers and handlers to track the life span of products: from the ingredients' origin to the grocery shelves and everything in between.

Not only would new software make the company FDA-compliant, as Renfro explained to his uncle and father, who are respectively Renfro Foods' chief financial officer and chief executive, but it would also help save money.

Months into the switch, Renfro Foods is seeing improvements.

Workers can generate a traffic report in minutes that before took days. Individual orders can be executed in seconds with the new system.

The software has gotten approving nods from Renfro's old guard.

"Before, my uncle used to look for a shotgun to blow up his computer," Renfro said. "He's at least hugging it now, maybe even warming up to a kiss."

The software package represents a leap in efficiency, Renfro said.

It works like this. Say a worker wants to create a batch of black bean salsa. The computer will ask how much and which previous vendors to order the ingredients from. The worker fills in the electronic form, avoiding paperwork and phone calls.

Every container of jalapeños that goes into a jar of salsa or bean dip can be traced to its origin. Once the salsa leaves the Renfro plant, the system can generate a list of which shelves the jars occupy. That way, Renfro can warn a specific store about a faulty product and avoid the costly, if not embarrassing, recall of an entire shipment.

Federal officials require such detailed records "to address credible threats of serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals," according to the Web site of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

The software switch has another nifty benefit. The system reveals spots where the company can be streamlined. It identifies patterns that Renfro Foods can use to consolidate orders, lowering overhead and boosting the bottom line.

"It's like having on high-powered glasses," Renfro said. "We can see a level of detail we've never had before."

Often, obeying federal regulations can lead to greater efficiency, said David Spence, associate professor of law, politics and regulation at the University of Texas at Austin.

Such information-based regulations, as they're called, provide opportunities for companies to self-examine, particularly where waste has been overlooked, he said. Environmental regulations from the 1980s governing toxic waste disposal prompted factories to consider whether the use of such chemicals was even necessary.

Even companies that were sued for violating such laws saved long-term costs.

"They were even thankful they'd been sued," Spence said. "Those companies realized they were using chemicals they didn't need and were able to eliminate."

FDA regulations notwithstanding, the eventual need for computers was looming at Renfro Foods, Renfro said. The company produces 50,000 jars of products a day, each containing 15 to 25 ingredients. The software can sort through routing and invoice numbers that, if done by hand, could quickly turn into an accounting nightmare.

Until the change was made, bookkeeping at Renfro was still done on paper ledgers, and invoices that were stuffed into a crypt of bulky file cabinets.

Renfro Foods is known for its line of Mrs. Renfro's brand salsas with such flavors as raspberry and peach. The company also produces relishes, syrups and sauces, as well as pickled vegetables.