Remembering Frank Liberto: A look back at the life of ‘The King of Nachos’

Features
Cinemas Features

This month, we remember a legend of the concession industry, Frank Liberto. Frank passed away in early November from a lingering illness, and the concession industry lost “the King of Nachos.”

Frank lived his life with zest and vigor. He was a great entrepreneur and a mentor to many of his colleagues and peers. Of Italian decent, he credited his father for his discipline and dedication to work. Everyone who met Frank has a story to tell, since he was always willing to give advice and consultation for the betterment of their lives. While his father, Enrico, and grandfather, Rosario, were the founders of the family business, Liberto Specialty Company, and gave him guidance and direction, no one could have taught Frank the devotion and keenness he had for the concession industry.

Frank himself founded Ricos Products in 1977. He was a leader at NAC and served as a regional vice president of NAC for over 20 years, creating many a concession seminar and educational program for the people of Texas and the Southeast. He will always be remembered for wearing his yellow ascot cap with the red Ricos logo.

Frank was a third-generation leader of Liberto Specialty Company. He is also credited with inventing concession nachos, which were unveiled at Texas Arlington Stadium in 1976. While the family business focused on distribution of food items and concession equipment, he had an entrepreneurial spirit that led him to add to the snack offerings at the concession stand. His first attempt was when he approached the stadium food and beverage manager at Arlington Baseball Stadium, suggesting he give nacho cheese with tortilla chips a chance. The manager was reluctant, but Frank would not take no for an answer and delivered 35 cases of canned cheese to the stadium anyway. Legend has it that the stadium sold all 35 cases in one day and the manager called Frank asking why he didn’t deliver more cases. Frank said he responded with an expletive, stating, “I told you it was a winner.” Nachos as we know them today were born from that “Never take no” attitude. That was Frank Liberto: strong, dogged and persistent until he got his way.

“Our father, Frank Liberto was a man of integrity,” Ricos president and CEO Tony Liberto asserts. “He led our company with an entrepreneur spirit and a passion that had an impact on his employees, customers, business associates and friends.” Frank could hold an audience by telling stories and anecdotes about his early days in sales. He oftentimes had a raw way of discussing matters, but nevertheless you knew Frank was filled with ardor for the business. He was driven by a desire to succeed.

A driving force of the National Association of Concessionaires, as president and board member, Frank never gave up on the idea of helping young prodigies in the industry. He often took the lead in creating educational forums that protected the integrity of the industry and assisted in networking efforts for young managers. He consistently sponsored NAC events, regional meetings and the national convention. He contributed countless dollars to offset the cost of scholastic programs. In 1997, he was awarded the Bert Nathan Award by NAC, recognizing him for his contributions to the concession channel of business. He remains one of just three honorary lifetime board members at NAC.

Liberto received many awards and accolades over the course of his life. He was charitable both at work and in the community. He was presented the 1988 Distinguished Alumni Award from St. Mary’s University and in 1994 was named one of the South Texas Entrepreneurs of the Year, while Ricos Products was named the Texas Family Business of the Year by the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University. 2005 saw Ricos named a Top 20 private business in San Antonio, Texas by San Antonio Success magazine.  

Frank Liberto advocated for many local and national organizations in the fields of education, health and human services, the arts, the military and multiple political organizations as a donor and supporter. He served with the Knights of Columbus, the Oblate School of Theology and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, just to name a few. He truly gave back to society as much as society gave to him.

Frank was the kind of guy you always wanted to meet, offering a huge smile, barrel laugh and great stories. If you worked for Frank, beware: He was driven, competitive and never accepted less than perfection. Yet nearly every person who was under his employ has gone on to excel in business. “Some of my fondest memories and lessons learned came from Frank Liberto,” states Charles Gomez, VP of specialty markets at Ricos. “Outside of my parents, he was the biggest influence in my life. He gave me a work home when I desperately needed one and was always supportive of my efforts. He was a pioneer in the concession industry and instilled in me the value of treating people well. Frank enjoyed life and we will all miss him.”

Anita Watts Largent, an early hire in sales for Ricos, fondly recalls her relationship with Frank at Ricos and his personality that required everyone on his staff to have the same commitment and resolute attitude. “I was very lucky to work with Frank at the beginning of my career and he gave me an extraordinary opportunity to hang myself or fly, and I will always appreciate it. There were times when I could just strangle him, and other times when we would drink a scotch and I realized what an amazing life he had lived. In the end, we should all hope to have as much living in our story as Frank Liberto,” Anita recalls.

The reality is that Frank Liberto treated everyone the same. He was not particular in his expectations, nor biased—he expected everyone to have the same dedication and devotion to the business, regardless of status, position or relationship. This is what made him a leader and a success. “That’s our Frank” was a common phrase among his peers. No one could deny his love for the concession business or his appreciation of what could be.

Frank Liberto will always be remembered as the father of nachos, a global empire he built. Those of us who knew Frank intimately will remember him as a friend and symbol of the concession channel. A promoter, for better or worse, he loved his family, his business and his friends.