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Stadium food is a big deal. If you go see the Washington Nationals and don’t stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl, did you even see the Nats? What would a trip to Dodger Stadium look like if you didn’t get a Dodger Dog? The cheese curds at Lambeau Field are as good or better than anything you find farther north.
For all the standout foods in sports arenas all over the country, there’s at least one thing they have in common with each other, the same thing carried by other event spaces, from NASCAR to county fairs: concession-stand nachos.
Who would have thought that a handful of tortilla chips, three slices of jalapeño and a cheese sauce that never congeals in defiance of nature would take the country by storm? Concession pioneer and U.S. Army veteran Frank Liberto, that’s who.
Liberto may not have created the nacho, but he made it easily accessible to the world. Dubbed “The King of Nachos” by the National Association of Concessionaires, he was born in 1933 and raised in San Antonio. After studying marketing at St. Mary’s University in his hometown, he joined the Army in 1955 as 2nd Lt. Liberto, where he commanded field artillery.
He served on active duty for six months but spent 12 years in the Army Reserve. In true American fashion, he went to work for Liberto Specialty Company, founded by his grandfather Rosario, a Sicilian immigrant, in 1909. Frank took over as CEO after his father stepped down in 1960. It was here that he created the orange gold we all know and love.
Nachos were created around 1940 by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya. He was looking to make a snack for a handful of military wives who were visiting the Mexican town of Piedras Negras from Eagle Pass, Texas, just across the border. His cook was gone, so he threw together some cheese on tortillas and put it in the oven with some japapeño slices.
Anaya never profited from his creation, but a self-described “bald peanut peddler” in San Antonio sure did. Frank Liberto’s first step toward cheesy royalty came in a Tex-Mex restaurant in the early 1970s. He loved nachos (who doesn’t?), but he didn’t know how he could get it into concession stands.
Chips were easy to find, but there could be no ovens, as the food needed to be made quickly. He also needed the perfect cheese and a special means of serving it up. He partnered with Wisconsin-based Dean Foods and spent a year coming up with the perfect recipe, a secret mix of water, jalapeño juice, cheddar and cheese-adjacent ingredients.
For a dash of authenticity, he sourced his jalapeños from a local farm outside of Monterrey, Mexico.
Perhaps most importantly, the cheese was heated and dispensed by proprietary equipment, which allowed the proliferation of nachos in stadiums nationwide. Liberto debuted it at a Texas Rangers game in 1976 and it caught on quickly. In 1977, the Dallas Cowboys picked it up. By 1979, it was the dominant concession-stand item in Texas.
After sportscaster Howard Cosell mentioned nachos multiple times during a broadcast, even movie theaters began to get cheesy. Bowling alleys, skating rinks and anywhere else that had a concession stand started offering nachos.
Liberto founded Ricos Products in 1978, which still sells the original condensed cheese sauce, but only Ricos knows the right ratio of water and jalapeño juice to add. He was rightly honored with a long list of awards and honors in his field. Sadly, the Prometheus of Nacho Cheese died in November 2017 at age 84.
While Ricos is no longer the only nacho game in town, it still does a thriving business. The company operates in 57 countries, is still based in San Antonio and is still run by a member of the Liberto family.