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Manuel Marruenda, the San Diego entrepreneur who introduced millions to Mexican drinks, dies at 81

Manuel Marruenda, the San Diego entrepreneur who introduced millions to Mexican drinks, dies at 81
Manuel Marruenda founded Fiesta Pacific Products in 1980. The company introduced Mexican tropical drinks such as horchata and tamarindo to the American market by selling them to taco shops throughout the United States. (handout)

Manuel Marruenda, the man who turned a garage start-up into a multimillion-dollar Mexican tropical drink empire, died of natural causes on Sept. 28 in San Diego. He was 81.

Marruenda, who was born in Mexico City in 1936, started Fiesta Pacific Products in his southeast San Diego home in 1980, said Laura Escajadillo, his sister-in-law and the company’s office manager.

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The company started out by selling soda fountains to taco shops. But instead of Pepsi or Sprite, they came with traditional Mexican flavors — horchata, jamaica, tamarindo.

As those mom-and-pop taco shops grew into regional chains, Marruenda’s business grew with them. When Roberto’s opened a store in Las Vegas, Marruenda began selling tropical drinks throughout Nevada. When another shop, Beto’s, opened in Utah, Marruenda went too.

Today, Fiesta Pacific is in 17 states, including Washington, Illinois, Texas and Iowa. And the company is growing, particularly in non-Latino markets.

“It used to be only Hispanic people knew what horchata was,” salesman Sean McNaughton said. “But now it’s so widespread everybody uses it.”

The company prepares drinks in mixable concentrates that restaurants can put into machines. But lately clients have found other interesting uses for the mix.

A chain of doughnut stores uses it to make horchata-flavored coffee and a local distillery, Cutwater, uses it to make horchata vodka, McNaughton said.

Fiesta Pacific makes about $1 million a month in revenue, McNaughton added.

Since Marruenda’s death, the company’s Otay Mesa headquarters has received flower vases almost daily.

Employees, many of whom have worked there for decades, remember Marruenda fondly.

It was Marruenda, or “El Patron,” as his employees called him, who hired David Bernal Salazar 28 years ago.

Salazar’s first job was to clean the bathrooms. Then he moved on to cleaning offices, then production, where he operated the machines. Now Salazar prepares the ingredients for each product.

“It’s a big loss but he’s still in our hearts,” Salazar said of Marruenda. “He’s the one who gave me a chance. I started cleaning bathrooms and never thought I’d be where I am now. It seems kind of incredible.”

Most employees at Fiesta Pacifica have a story about how Marruenda helped them. El Patron had a habit of asking employees about their families and life outside work. He’d help people fix broken-down cars or even tackle bigger projects.

Domingo Hernandez, 30, remembers Marruenda offering money to help Hernandez build his house in Rosarito.

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“One day he asked me to stop by his house after work,” Hernandez said. “He gave me an envelope and told me it’s so I can finish my house. That’s the kind of man he was.”

Hernandez said Marruenda was special in how much attention he paid to his employees.

“I think because he started this from nothing he never lost that humility,” he said. “He knew what it means to fight on.”

Although Marruenda had a big heart, he had a reputation for being a demanding boss and overseeing every aspect of the business.

“He was very strict,” Escajadillo said. “I remember back in the days before cellphones, he would call each client to see if the salesman went to do their daily visit. He would call the clients and ask if the salesman had stopped by.”

Even later in life, after his sons Manny, Paco and Juan began running the day-to-day operations, Marruenda kept his office and asked for monthly financial statements on sales and revenue.

The business “was everything to him,” McNaughton said.

Marruenda is survived by four children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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