The cans are hard to miss. Bright red, neon green, glowing yellow. At most grocery stores, they sit at about thigh height, in colored tins large and small, surrounded by countless other jars and bottles of corporate salsa. You’d likely recognize the throwback logo (it’s the one with the hand-drawn duck, which is really a male mallard, bright green head and all, standing on a sandy shoreline) having walked by it in the aisle or scrolled past it online for years. On Instagram, people fill their newly emptied containers with succulents or flowers; they get tattoos of the cans on their bodies. That duck is everywhere.
Despite the seeming brand ubiquity, this is no conglomerate sauce. This is El Pato, the 115-year-old, family-run, native-to-LA company that is still pumping out salsas, vinegars, mustards, peppers, and pickled items from a facility on the banks of the LA River — even (and especially) during the pandemic.
The manufacturing area is really just a collection of buildings, picked up over the years and paid for in full, that takes up what amounts to a city block. Weaving between the front offices and loading docks and holding facilities and duck-painted storage tanks takes time, especially these days, with everything slowed down and at a distance. Employees with hairnets and face masks continue their efforts, working inaudibly as machines beep and whir in the rooms beyond. It’s the kind of auditory jumble that Robert Walker, the current CEO of Walker Foods Inc., grew up with. His grandfather James founded Walker Foods, and with it the famed El Pato brand (as well as Golden State, which packages vinegars, chiles, and mustards) here more than a century ago, though he admits the firm details from those days are mostly “lost to the mists of time.”
Here’s what is known: The first whiff of Walker Foods began across the river on Santa Fe, with the elder Walker purchasing the current address on Mission Road in the 1920s. It was here that the do-it-all El Pato sauce became an anchor for the family as the company pushed further into the Mexican food market. This is where the young Robert Walker, now a spry 78, essentially grew up. “Salsa flows in my veins,” he says.
He’s not alone. A Vice story from two years ago called El Pato a “pantry staple of Hispanic households,” the kind of “secret ingredient” known to generations of families serving enchiladas, tamales, and so much more. The hot sauce in the yellow can, with its tomato base and cascabel chile heat, accounts for roughly half of the company’s millions in annual sales, followed by the green and red cans, then on to the other pantry staples, sold on store shelves or wholesale to distributors and restaurant clients. Walker Foods is the primary servicer of white vinegar for all McDonald’s locations west of the Mississippi and across the Pacific Rim. The mustard for those mustard-grilled burgers from In-N-Out? That’s Walker Foods, too, and has been since the chain’s first day in business back in 1948.
But make no mistake: The company relies on its hot sauce sales, particularly those branded cans for at-home use. “The lifeblood of this company is the yellow can,” says Robert Walker.
He uses similar all-encompassing language when speaking about his union-run staff of 70 or so. “These people have all held me up,” says Walker on becoming CEO of the family-owned company in 1999, after his uncle suffered a heart attack on the plant floor. During the pandemic, the company put anyone over 60 years old on paid home leave; brought in increased protection measures, like plastic barriers between workstations; and instituted contact-tracing protocols for anyone who steps onto the property. “We’ve got people down here who have never left,” says Walker proudly. “They’ve given their lives to this company.”
All that dedication — by Walker Foods employees, Robert Walker himself, and El Pato’s enduring fans — has been paying off during this troubled year. Despite a drastic reduction in wholesale restaurant clients, Walker says, “this is the best financial year we’ve had in my experience. And our margins are very, very tight.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” Walker says of his family’s century-old, history-making hot sauce in the heart of Downtown. More than that, Walker Foods’ quiet history has woven itself into the fabric of daily life for millions of Southern California families in all those years, from the Snyder family that founded In-N-Out over 70 years ago to the current generation of Instagram-sharing can fans. “But we’re here, and we’ve succeeded in being here all this time.”