Severance Foods — A Hartford Mainstay For 36 Years
MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price met with Severance Foods, Inc. President Dick Stevens and his son, VP Business Development Rick Stevens, to tour the facility and learn more about the Hartford-based institution.
NAN PRICE: Severance Foods is a great story about gumption, determination, and success. How did you come up with the idea to manufacture tortilla chips?
DICK STEVENS: When I worked in the research and development department at Heublein Inc. in the late 1970s, they owned Ortega. A lot of effort was geared toward Ortega developing taco shells, taco seasoning, and salsas. At the time, Mexican food was pretty unheard of in the East Coast and the Northeast.
I visited factories in Wisconsin and California where the Ortega taco shells, chilis, and salsas were made, so I gained familiarity with the plants and operations. But I also liked the business part of it. When I went to the University of Connecticut for my MBA, I really wanted to blend my food scientist side with some marketing.
In 1984, when we were that our jobs were being moved to California, it dawned on me that nobody in the Northeast was making taco shells, tortilla chips, or tortillas. And yet Mexican restaurants were opening in Boston, Springfield, and New York. This was back in 1984.
So, I got together with two other guys and asked what they thought about starting a company making tortillas. I had done some market research and found the restaurants were buying supplies from Texas. We all thought it would great to have a local company here in Hartford making tortillas to supply to restaurants in the Northeast.
We all went to Boston for a restaurant show where we were able to talk to some distributors and restaurants, which convinced us that our idea could work. At dinner that night, we decided to go for it and kicked around some names. We were all getting a pretty generous severance package for leaving Heublein, so we decided on Severance Foods.
NAN: How did you learn the business side of things?
DICK: A lot of resources out there can help. I put a good team together including an attorney and an accountant, who walked me through the process.
In terms of location and funding, when we first opened, we looked at buildings in New Britain, Windsor, and Hartford. At the time, Hartford had some pretty good incentives. This was an enterprise zone, so there were tax abatements and incentives for creating jobs.
We worked with HEDCO and I had a connection at CBT Bank. I also connected with the U.S. Small Business Administration, which stepped in and guaranteed our loan with CBT Bank. We also got private funding from friends and family.
But, in terms of knowing how to manufacture products, that just came from hands-on experience in the plants. There was still a learning curve. We had equipment manufacturers who trained us. And I remember talking to someone from our corn supplier, Valley Grain Corn, who spent hours on the phone with me talking about how to make tortilla chips, what kind of corn to use, how much water, how long to bake them, and at what temperature.
NAN: Rick, let’s talk about your involvement. Did you always intend to become a part of the company?
RICK STEVENS: I was six months old when the business was started, so I’ve grown up with it and been exposed to things happening here from the get-go. I worked here quite a bit as a kid, stacking tortillas, inspecting, sheeting, and packing boxes. I did that all through college.
And, being a typical family member, I was adamantly opposed to working here and determined to do my own thing. So, I spent some time in Washington, D.C. working at the Federal Trade Commission and Homeland Security, but I found whenever I was on the phone with Dad, I was getting excited about some new product they were making or a new customer.
My wife is also from Connecticut and we were missing home. But we really did move back to Connecticut for my position at Severance. That was 10 years ago. I have no regrets. I love the hands-on nature of the work I do and seeing how the products affect everyone. I’m very proud of my job.
NAN: Let’s talk about the evolution. As you were first starting out, how did you build clientele?
DICK: The first few years, we started making tortillas, putting them in the backs of our cars, and driving them to Boston or Springfield to make deliveries. Then we got big enough to hire our first employees around 1987. It was a struggle. We had to get another little loan to keep us moving along.
Our big break came from Weight Watchers in Rocky Hill, which was coming out with a new line of frozen enchilada dinners. They needed a fresh source of corn tortillas every day—and they needed thousands of them.
At the time, we were still making tortilla chips maybe one day a week. Overnight, we got orders for a truckload of corn tortillas. We hired our wives to come in and stack tortillas and box them—it didn’t go well! We hired some real employees and got the job done. All of a sudden, we were making tortillas five days a week.
NAN: That’s interesting. Why did you transition from tortillas to tortilla chips?
DICK: We originally didn’t have any bagging machines. We were only producing chips in 6-lb bulk boxes for restaurants. We made tortillas up until about 15 years ago. We made our last tortilla once we put in our first bagging machine. Until then, we didn’t realize that chips aren’t made by the company that’s on the bag. They’re made by companies that have bagging machines.
Eventually, word got out that Severance Foods now had bagging capabilities. Companies that were having their chips made in the south or out west were calling us asking if we could make their chips here in Hartford.
NAN: So it’s true, the more local, the better.
RICK: Right. Logistics is everything with dry snacks because so much of what is in a bag of chips is air. Freight is a killer.
NAN: Why Hartford?
RICK: Hartford is a great location for businesses that distribute in a large area because we’re so close to I-91 and I-84. We’re at the crossroads here. We ship up into Canada.
I once read a fact that said: One third of the United States total population is located within a 500-mile radius of Connecticut. When we’re working with a national chain, those statistics matter. We can service nearly a third of the U.S. economy from our location for a reasonable cost.
DICK: There’s a strong labor force here, too, which has been a struggle for many of our competitors out in the Midwest. We’ve been very fortunate in that area.
RICK: We’re investing $3.5 million in equipment in the next few months. I think that just shows our commitment to Hartford. We definitely don’t have interest in going anywhere else.