A little bit about Hector:
Hector Saldivar is the founder and owner of Tia Lupita® Foods, a better for you, healthy Mexican-inspired food brand that uses clean and simple ingredients in all their products. Tia Lupita® is also the first brand to introduce Nopales Cactus as an alternative, functional and sustainable ingredient in the USA market. Tia Lupita® Foods is a Foodbytes by Rabobank Judges Choice winner, Natural Products Expo West Pitch Slam Winner and a Naturally Bay Area inaugural pitch slam runner up. Hector has also been recognized by TIME Magazine as one of 80 Mexicans that are helping shape contemporary culture.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Trackmind: Can you tell me a little bit about your brand, how you came up with the idea and the name for your company?
Hector Saldivar: Yeah absolutely, my name is Hector Saldivar and I’m the founder and CEO of Tia Lupita Foods. We are a better-for-you Mexican inspired food brand. We use clean simple, ingredients in all of our products and also we are proud to say that we are one of the first brands I think the first brand in food that is using cactus/nopales or introduced cactus/nopales as an alternative functional and sustainable ingredient in our line of grain free tortilla chips and cactus tortillas which are low calorie and low carb.
Tia Lupita started back in 2018. It’s a hot sauce company brand based on my mom’s family recipe for hot sauce. Tia Lupita is my mom. Her name is Lupita and I know a lot of people are like well you know if I know my Spanish properly tia means aunt and yes you are correct. But I like to say that Tia Lupita is my mom but she is your tia, she is your aunt and it’s a term of endearment that we use in Mexico. Especially in northern Mexico we don’t use the terms or refer to the parents of friends like sir, mister or Mrs. We use the word aunt or uncle. That’s a term of endearment and because we know that they’re going to take care of us like part of a family, we reciprocate with the same love towards them.
My mom would make this hot sauce based on a family recipe that had been passed down to a single family member of each generation so you need to be the chosen one. I like to say in Mexico we don’t inherit cars or money or jewelry. What gets passed down to us are our family recipes. They are our family heirlooms. You know now that dia de muertos recently passed by and that’s how we truly honor our family legacy, by either continuing to replicate this recipe or even improving if you can in some way, shape or form. But you will always hear a Mexican say “oh I’m going to make my grandmother’s mole” or “there’s a party and I’m going to bring my aunt’s enchiladas”. And in my case it was hot sauce.
Friends would show up randomly on a Tuesday night, ring the doorbell in my house and be like “Tia Lupita do you have some of your hot sauce? We brought tacos” you know “we brought pollo loco” or whatever. And so when I moved from Monterrey, Mexico to the bay area 18 years ago, almost a generation ago, my mom would ship me care packages like a regular mom does and those care packages included hot sauce. So I started sharing that hot sauce with new friends and colleagues. Yes, I’m that weird guy who brings his own hot sauce to the workplace. That allowed me to share a piece of my culture, my family and I also realized that people who tried my mom’s hot sauce fell in love with it and they also realized that my mom’s hot sauce was unique tasting or that at least nothing in the marketplace tasted like my mom’s hot sauce.
That’s kind of how it all started, with little orders like “hey man when you go back to Mexico tell your mom to make me a bottle I’ll pay you money” or whatever and then started growing and growing and growing until now I was like I can’t do this anymore. I have to leave either clothes so that I can bring hot sauce or you know the custom agents are getting suspicious. So you know I’m sorry but I can’t be bringing all this bulk of hot sauce and so it’s like “well no you cannot leave us hanging. Learn to make it, bottle it, sell it.” So that’s how it started, like the quintessential–– you have a tasty family product that people got hooked on and once you took the candy away it was like no we cannot live without this hot sauce. It took a while you know, it took a good ten-eight years of fermenting and this idea of should I start this business or not.
Trackmind: Yeah and now you’re into it 100%
Hector Saldivar: Now there’s no turning back yes. I’m neck deep so yeah.
Trackmind: Yeah that’s good, that’s nice, that’s very interesting. So you said it’s like a family legacy right. So were you hesitant at first to bottle it and give the recipe, not recipe, but maybe have it reached a much larger audience and are you worried that you know someone might steal it?
Hector Saldivar: Absolutely and believe me Uma, the first one to be nervous about it was my mom. She was like, “I don’t know, it’s a family recipe and you know I need to pass it down to someone”. And I have two sisters, and luckily for me none of my two sisters were interested in learning how to do that sauce. So I was like mom please show me how to do this and totally fine if not but you know this will elevate our legacy from just our family circle into a broader perspective. So I flew in my mom and she taught me how to do this.
And also stepping back a little bit you know people back in Mexico would ask my mom for the recipe and even from sketchy perspectives like, “Yes Lupita, give me your recipe and I’ll give you money. I’ll give you royalties.” or something like that. And my mom was super nervous and super respectful of this recipe. When she started teaching me how to do this, I also started to get that nervousness and having this responsibility of “what if they steal this?” right.
When I started, I was doing this by myself and I would do it in a commercial kitchen and all that and I was safe there. At least I was the one sourcing the ingredients, I was the one following my mom’s process and all that. But it was when we outgrew that because at the end of the day in the commercial kitchen I could only do like seven cases a day and I only had time twice or three times a week to do that. But I also needed to sell it right, so moving to a co-packer was the next logical step and that’s when it’s like okay so I need to give you the recipe right. And there are NDAs and documents and certifications to avoid replications and stealing and this and that, but it’s pretty useless because if they tweak a little bit it’s another recipe.
In food, there are no patents right. You need to disclose the ingredients and pretty much anyone can reverse engineer anything right now in food even though you feel like you have this special process or secret recipe or what not. So I had to take the leap of faith that I need to trust my co-packing partners and so far so good. I mean not going to lie, I did shop around a couple of co-packers and you know saw several sketchy practices that didn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy inside and again I need to to feel really confident and ensure that they were going to respect my mom’s recipes and ingredients and all that stuff. So we had to part ways, so there were setbacks but again we’ve landed so far with great co-packing partners that we trust and have an open line of communication. And it’s reflected in the product.
If there’s any listeners out there that are thinking about launching their food brand you know nothing once you co-pack nothing is going to taste exactly as you know as if you made it in the kitchen right. As you know made in a small batch you know kitchen for you know family of five. Nothing’s gonna taste like that so you have to realize what your percentage of accuracy is. For me, I want the hot sauce to be at least 90% there and that’s the other component that I had to make peace with is that yeah okay this is the closest we’re going to tasting like the real deal and I’m super excited because I’m going to use it. I was like the control, like if Hector uses it everyone is going to use it. It was a very nerve wrecking approach and just releasing that and passing it out there’s a trust built but yeah we were able to make it happen and I’m happy that I did.
Trackmind: That’s amazing yeah that’s it can definitely get challenging. That was my first thought when I was going through your website and everything else like wow how must she be feeling about just putting this out there into the world. But I’m glad that it’s working out. Now in terms of like your brand right so it completely reflects your mother, so how did you come up with that idea? What made you think that she has to be the face of the brand?
Hector Saldivar: Yeah no absolutely thank you for that question. For me it was authenticity, it was very important. Originality. These are foods and recipes that are coming from a real person and shoppers and consumers appreciate that a lot. You know when we go grocery shopping or food shopping we smell, we know what’s fake and what’s real right. And I just wanted to make sure that people knew that this was not a brand or a product that was ideated in an office in Omaha, Nebraska with a couple of old white dudes, you know “how about we come out with a brand called Old El Paso?” right yeah that is going to be Mexican.
So it’s a very funny story when I was thinking of this, again, remember I’m from Mexico, I’ve been living in the United States for 18 years and I’ve seen a lot of things. You know how my culture gets portrayed sometimes and how we get profiled etc etc. So I wanted to to stay away from your traditional Mexican branding, you’re seeing you know piñatas or you know the Mexican mustache guy with a big sombrero you know laying next to a cactus or you know what they called the profile of the Mexican women, we call them adelitas, with the dress and the hair do and the flower and paper mache stuff. There’s always a donkey piñata, always. So I was kind of tired of that. It’s like Mexico is more than that. We’re also a progressive country, society. You know we’re modern or we have skyscrapers, we have great universities. So again I definitely didn’t want any of those things being portrayed as a brand.
So anyway I was building this mood board and I was telling this graphic designer––I literally Googled “graphic designer San Francisco” right and then you know Kimberly, she was the first came out and she’s like give me a mood board of what you think and I was thinking taco trucks, some Mexican urban spots, taco alleys, urban poetry you know stuff like that. Those sort of things that I live and enjoy in Mexico. I’m putting all these images and I literally just dropped a picture of my family in the corner and a picture of my mom. The picture of my mom was the picture that you see on the bottle. It is how you would find her. For me it is such a normal picture because that’s how you see her wearing an apron and her curler in the front of her head to avoid her bangs falling in her eyes and Kimberly immediately gravitated she’s like, “wait a second who’s that? I’m in love with her.” And I’m like “that’s my mom” she’s like “oh my god she’s so cute with the apron and the curler”. And in my eyes that’s normal but obviously totally forgot that normal people don’t wear curlers and aprons all the time.
So she drew the logo that we now use and I completely forgot everything about the whole taco trucks, alleys. I was like yes this connects with me. That has been my approach so far on everything, whatever gets me, whatever connects with me I use as I think it is going to multiply to the masses. And humor right? It’s light hearted and heartfelt. I think for me humor is very important and I knew and so remember we started as a hot sauce brand. And I also wanted to be different so I knew that if you close your eyes and you picture that hot sauce set it is very macho driven, very polarizing. It communicates a lot of a lot of pain right, it’s all about the devils, skulls and bones, you know flamethrowers everywhere. And I knew that you know if I had the logo of my mom wearing a curler, people would notice that and that you know worst case scenario it would put a smile on people’s face.
Trackmind: Yeah that was my first impression too, I instantly felt at home because like I lived in Mexico for a year but I did live with three different families so it instantly reminded me of the kitchens back home. This was back in 2014 and after that I just went to Mexico once but I still remember the smell of the tortilla on the pan, like the tortilla de harina, and instantly those senses just got activated.
Hector Saldivar: Yes you know you know when they’re making stews and their tea all of those smells come into mind for sure yeah.
Trackmind: Yeah immediately. So you definitely got the point across with that so that was amazing.
Hector Saldivar: Thank you.
Trackmind: My next question is– what has been the biggest roadblock you’ve had and what has been the biggest success?
Hector Saldivar: Yes I mean roadblocks so far, you know many challenges for sure. This is not easy, you know, starting a business as an entrepreneur, family of five, all that stuff. It’s really hard. So yeah definitely several challenges in different stages for sure. Like from the beginning you know, how do we grow this, produce this in large quantities without compromising flavor and the quality. How do we distribute it, how do we grow? Like for me you know, jumping in my jeep and selling it store to store, to moving to distributors and sacrificing margins and all that stuff. It goes in stages, but so far, the stage where we are right now, it’s growing, it’s managing the growth. Thankfully for us we’re growing and there’s a lot of interest for our products and the product moves really well, it’s controlling the growth and we’re growing strategically because you know at the end of day you need capital and growth can deplete your bank account pretty quickly. And so looping it to that, raising money has also been a challenge–raising money through the pandemic, raising money right now with the economic situation and inflation and all that stuff. I feel like we have not been in a stable economic environment in a while. There’s always something floating there. And you know being compared inevitably to other brands or brands that are similar to us and that are growing at different paces and have a lot more attraction.
It’s just hard to explain that you know these other brands started with different resources. They started with more people, I started by myself, this guy started with twelve people right away, or whatnot, they had money being backed, with bootstrap. And it’s kind of like when raising money a lot of investors are very myopic and they just don’t want to see the other factors. Then there’s the inevitable doubt that all this starts to raise in oneself when you’re raising money because the no’s outpace the yes every time and that could be very exhausting and just generates a lot of insecurities. I call them doubt demons, they start looming and it’s like why do they pass, why do they keep saying no, why did they fund this other brand and not me, is my product not good enough? Am I not good enough? and all that stuff so that’s the hardest challenge to surpass is being secure of yourself and being secure of your product, you know that is worth it. Also taking constructive feedback if there’s any right and because that also helps a lot right. If you think you’re doing one thing right but you keep hearing other people saying maybe you shouldn’t, maybe you should, then maybe you should consider it, and not be super headstrong in that regard.
So I think for me those have been the challenges. And again there’s going to be disappointments. I heard this term this morning, I heard it in Spanish but I’m going to translate in English, “you can visit the top of the mountain but you cannot live there” right. It’s like you will be on the top, there’s going to be ups and downs, you know so you can visit the top, enjoy the view, enjoy the fresh air, and the excitement, and the adrenaline, but understand that you have to come down and that you cannot live there. The top of the mountain property is not for sale and so you have to come down. But you can visit it back again right. So that’s the approach right and I think hopefully other entrepreneurs listening to this, this is a ride of ups and downs and you know when you’re up it’s an amazing high, when you’re down it’s like why is everything happening to me. Learn to pass that. What have been some amazing successes or wins for me, for us right now is, I have, we’re a small team. I think the team that we have is an amazing, capable team. I’m so lucky to have them because no doubt you know if I didn’t have Cam, Vince, Bianca, Amy who is my wife you know Tia Lupita wouldn’t be here and wouldn’t be growing as it’s growing. That’s one of the things that I’m really grateful for.
Trackmind: That’s amazing, that’s amazing! I’m so happy that it’s going properly. Of course there’s always going to be ups and downs but I’m sure that there are more ups.
Hector Saldivar: That’s, yeah exactly, we want to be at the top of the mountain more often right, we like it there. So we wanted to be more recurrent there but for that you know you have to work harder and harder.
Trackmind: Yeah that’s true. Okay so tell me just a little bit about your sustainability mission so I read that you partner with Renewal Mill, can you tell me a little bit about that?
Hector Saldivar: Yeah absolutely, this is a great story because again like I mentioned we are one of the first brands to introduce cactus or nopales as a sustainable ingredient. We realized that we needed to introduce this amazing super food that is the most sustainable plant in the world because it grows in the desert. It needs very little water to grow, you can crop and harvest twice a year because it reaches maturity every six months. And so you know we need to start educating the consumers here in the United States about this amazing tasting food. I challenge anyone you know here listening to go to your local Mexican restaurant, not your Taco Bell or you know whatever, go to the grimy one, the real original and ask for the vegetarian option, ask for nopales, grilled or you know sometimes their compliment in fajitas and stuff like that. Try them. It’s an amazing taste, it is a combination between like a bell pepper and a pickle. It’s really good, it’s an amazing taste. So that was kind of my approach, like why aren’t more people eating this here in the United States.
Then as I was trying to keep up with this amazing sustainable trend, I started reading more about upcycled ingredients and I remember I was at Fancy Foods Show 2019 and I saw, I think her name was Claire or Caroline, but one of them pitched Renewal Mill I was completely like blown away about this upcycled flour. It was the by-waste of tofu and milk and how all this pulp would end up in landfills and how they recover it and process it into high protein high fiber flour. I’m like, can I use this? Is there a way that we can make tortillas with it or what can I do with it? So I went to her booth after her pitch and introduced myself like hey you know can you teach me more about this flour. It was a learning process and I wanted to bring out a grain free tortilla made with cactus as well knowing that grain free was also growing in the paleo community right. And then you know it all came about together and we came up with amazing tortillas, one of the best selling tortillas.
But we need more education on this, we need people to be more open to trying this because that’s the only way that we can contribute to destress you know the food supply chain system. As consumers but also as brands we need to find out ways how we can reduce our carbon footprint because you know the world is suffering. I’m a father of three and I do worry about the conditions of the planet for them. You know we like to joke that because of the cactus and the upcycled flour we have the most sustainable tortilla and you’re helping save the planet one taco at a time.
Trackmind: Well I mean it’s all about mindset shift right so I think it’s really good to be able to educate consumers in as many different ways as possible because I think even with me, I live fairly sustainable, at least that’s what I like to believe, and even in my culture it’s all about repurposing, reusing. You know like what you see in a typical hispanic household a lot of bags under the sink right, same thing.
Hector Saldivar: Or like opening the case of the little container of margarine and its beans. It’s like well because we’re repurposing all it’s like the metallic cookies assortment that you open and it’s a sewing kit inside, we repurpose yeah for sure anyway.
Trackmind: I think that is like you know the world has gotten very used to single use products which is, you know I still haven’t let go of that habit of repurposing things so like any way that you know you’re able to educate people about being more sustainable that’s really good. I’m very happy to hear that okay so my next question is if there is one Mexican snack something that’s super staple that you would like to bring to the market what would it be?
Hector Saldivar: Okay so one Mexican snack staple that I could bring to the States, what would it be? I mean right now you can find everything, but not as conveniently you know. For example, if I really want you know, like the elote or the corn right, from a cup or straight from the cob, in Mexico I literally know where I can go, but here it’s a hit or miss. If I go to the Hispanic neighborhood and there is going to be the elote guy right or the chamoyadas or the mangonadas, those types of chilly sweet flavor snacks are making their way more and they’re being Americanized. I love seeing that more people are using gummy bears and skittle but they’re also pouring like chamoy and tajín and they’re like making them like this you know chilly powder sweet acid sour patchy thing. But again it’s not as convenient to get. And a lot of people don’t know this but Mexican food is regionalized, so remember I’m from northern Mexico and the food that I eat in Monterrey is not necessarily the same as the food that is eaten in Guadalajara or Mexico City or Puebla or whatnot.
So I do miss Mexican food from Monterrey which would be grilled or traditionally like baby goat, people freak out when I say baby goat. It’s a lot of grilling and we’re really proud of our cuts of steak but we also do machacada con huevo, barbacoa, like for example here in California, barbacoa means that it’s just slow cooked beef, shredded beef. And in Monterrey, barbacoa is slow cooked head of the cow, all the meat from the head of the cow, like the cheek, the tongue, you know the eyes, all of that slow cooked where it falls off the bone and then you just shred it. And so for me that’s like one of the things that I miss the most. I know it’s not a snack but it’s a food that I cherish the most and every time I go to Monterrey I have to eat barbacoa tacos for sure.
I’m happy to see that even Topo Chico is making its way everywhere now. And for me to explain to people that Topo Chico is from Monterrey, it was our everyday water and here it has become this premium phenomena that you know you go to a restaurant, they’ll charge you seven dollars for it. The next thing, like the next thing to tap water, was Topo Chico, so that makes me super proud. Those are things that I start seeing more and more and I’m super happy. So hopefully with Tia Lupita, I was talking to another fellow Mexican last week and she’s like, “oh my god, I’m so happy that you’re doing cactus tortillas because I got tired of bringing them from Mexico” and I was like that’s why I did them because every time I went to Mexico I would have to bring these cactus tortillas for my own consumption because I couldn’t find them here in the United States so at least I know two people that I’m solving a problem for.
Trackmind: Yeah actually I’m gonna add to that, I guess this is something super common but I love Salsa del Primo. That was the first salsa I had, like apart from what was made at home, that was the first one that I tasted and that taste really stuck and they don’t sell it here.
Hector Saldivar: Maybe in Texas, you will find it in several Mexican super markets in Texas. But you find Los Compadres here, it’s like a cheap imitation but yeah it is different.
Trackmind: It’s so different, so now, my friend, whenever she goes, she’s from Chihuahua, so whenever she goes there either her or her mom or someone whoever is traveling they always get one small bottle for me. I’m like, that is a little bit at least, and I use it so carefully. So now I’m like okay I need to try Tia Lupita’s hot sauce to replace Salsa del Primo.
Hector Saldivar: Our salsa verde is very similar but very simple. Hopefully you’ll taste it and maybe I can convert you.
Trackmind: Yes, I’m gonna go purchase it today. I have two more questions. What’s next for your company? You already have a few products, where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
Hector Saldivar: Hopefully we’re still around in the next five years. I didn’t crash this to the ground. For now, I think we’re really really happy with just, you know, last year I said the same thing like we’re fine with the three lines, with our hot sauces and our tortillas and our tortilla chips, but this year we launched salsa macha. So salsa macha is the Mexican take on chilli oil, chilli crunch, you know chilli crisp right. It’s an oil based salsa that we use chile morita, we use pepitas which are pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and we have two versions. One version has cranberries, dried cranberries, and the other version has peanuts. And I like to say it’s the future of hot sauce. It’s the evolution of hot sauce. It’s super versatile, it has texture and it has layers and you can use it in so many ways. You can use it as a topping, you can use it as a salad dressing, as a marinate even, you can use the oil to cook.
So you know the reason that I brought this, number one aside from you know being part of this amazing trend and I wanted to be ahead of this evolution in future of hot sauce is because you know it’s the same buyers as the hot sauce as condiments, so I didn’t need to dilute my efforts with another category review and kind of category date and over lapses in that so I brought it because you know hey I’m already seeing the condiment buyer with my hot sauce and by the way I’m bringing this amazing innovation. So far this product has brought a lot of excitement to my meetings with buyers and Albertsons is bringing it in nationally, we’re talking with a lot of a lot of regional accounts, already bringing them in here in California. I’m super excited about that.
Going forward, what do I see next, you know I do feel now that with four lines we’re fine. I think we can definitely continue innovating with the lines that we have. If a buyer asks me, “hey your tortillas are doing really well, can you bring a rotation like a flavor rotation? Can you produce a chilli flavor or you know churro flavor?” I don’t know about that one, but she’s like “hey bring me flavors and we’ll try them out on our rotation, you know if it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t stick. But you know we’ll rotate it once a year.” So I think we can do that. There’s also the opportunity of moving into food service right, so we’re doing sachets for our hot sauce. We’re really happy about that opportunity, free sampling right, we’re going to be sampling and people are going to have the opportunity of trying it. Same with our tortilla chips, we’re doing a two ounce bag, single serve, we can be in concession stands and convenience stores. So I think that’s the plan, short and mid-term, and then you know long term again, we want to become the number one Mexican food brand in the United States. We’ll try to do it at our own pace, you know steady and and strategically and we’ll see where it goes.
Trackmind: That sounds amazing. I’m super excited to see the other flavors that you come up with. I’m definitely going to try that hot. But those were all questions. Just one last thing, if you have any advice that you want to give to new founders who want to start their bands who are probably struggling at the moment, do you have any words you want to say to them.
Hector Saldivar: For me, it’s very clear, if there is a problem and you know how to fix it, go for it. Don’t have that insecurity and that doubt. Even if you hear other people say that the category is already saturated or fragmented, again if you have something unique in you, at least it’s a problem to you and this is going to fix it for yourself and it’s self fulfilling, go for it. Also understand that perfection is unreachable sometimes and I would always argue that perfection is unreachable. I remember getting stuck not wanting to move forward because little things on the label, little things like is this the right bottle? l remember I heard someone say, “hey progress not perfection guys, progress not perfection” and that clicked with me, almost like somebody threw a bucket of cold water. I was like what am I doing, progress not perfection. And it’s just plunging forward, moving forward. And then you know the business and the market will dictate where you’re going, if you’re going to the left or you’re going to the right, if you’re going up or you’re going down. Remember that you will visit the top of the mountain, but that real estate is not for sale. So think that you’re going to have to go down and it’s okay but you can come back up again.
Trackmind: That is amazing. Thank you so much.
Enjoying our Feature Series so far? Check out other interviews and follow us on Instagram and Linkedin to stay connected and see more stories of incredible business leaders like Hector Saldivar.