SAN FRANCISCO — Cactus is the star ingredient in a line of tortillas and tortilla chips created by Tia Lupita Foods. The nopales cactus, which appears on the Mexican flag as a symbol of resilience, is an abundant and sustainable crop with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, said Hector Saldívar founder and chief executive officer of the Bay Area-based business.
“We love to say we’re trying to save the planet one taco at a time,” he said.
Mr. Saldívar, a medical school dropout from Monterrey, Mexico, held sales and marketing roles at Nestle USA and Diamond Foods prior to launching Tia Lupita Foods as an homage to his heritage. The brand’s initial offering is a hot sauce inspired by a family recipe previously guarded by his mother, Lupita.
Tia Lupita products are sold online and in more than 4,000 retail outlets nationwide. The company, which is on track to generate $8 million in sales this year, is raising money through an equity crowdfunding campaign at wefunder.com/tialupita to sustain strong momentum. Proceeds will support product development, branding and marketing strategy, distribution expansion and other initiatives.
In an interview with Food Entrepreneur, Mr. Saldívar discussed how Tia Lupita Foods started and how it’s going.
Food Entrepreneur: Why did you launch this business?
Mr. Saldívar: It all started with my mom’s hot sauce. I am an immigrant originally from Monterrey, Mexico, which is 100 miles away from the Texas border. When I moved to the US, my mom would ship me care packages. A normal mom care package would be a sweater or socks, money, but, no, my mom would ship her hot sauce. It’s a recipe that has been passed down to a single family member from each generation.
I like to make a big deal of this because sometimes people don’t understand that in Mexico we usually don’t inherit cars or jewelry or money; what gets passed down to us are family recipes. Those become our family heirlooms. You’ll always hear Mexicans say, “I’ll do my grandmother’s mole recipe” or “I’ll do my aunt’s enchilada recipe that she taught me how to do.” That’s truly how our family legacy lives on, through food.
With those care packages, my mom was not only making sure she was establishing a connection with me from a long distance; she wanted to ensure I didn’t forget where I came from, but also she was fulfilling a need for me over here. I honestly couldn’t find a hot sauce that tasted like my mom’s that was made with simple ingredients and had the same flavor. She was filling that need.
And as I shared that hot sauce around, other people started falling in love with my mom’s hot sauce. Yes, I was that guy who brought the hot sauce to work. But that indirectly helped me to validate that my mom’s hot sauce was unique and that people were truly loving it to the point that every time I went back to Mexico I would get orders from my coworkers and friends.
What was so special about the sauce?
Mr. Saldívar: The secret is simplicity. I like to say we make the hot sauce with ingredients my mom can find in her pantry and farmer’s market. Seeing what the market was offering in the hot sauce category, there was a lot of sodium, a lot of binders and gums and sugar because they’re using crazy peppers.
How did you get your mother’s permission to bottle and sell it?
Mr. Saldívar: I convinced her this product needed to live on and it would honor our family by commercializing this. She gave me her blessing. I flew her from Monterrey, Mexico, to San Francisco to teach me how to do the hot sauce. She had her own measurements, none of which were scientific.
After she came here and taught me, and then me doing it by myself, she said, “I’m totally cool with this going to market.” Recently, she finally gave me the best compliment I could receive. She told me, “Hector, I think your hot sauce tastes better than mine.”
What inspired you to expand beyond hot sauce?
Mr. Saldívar: Following the trends I was seeing, trends like plant-based, sustainability, superfoods, authenticity, I was like, “Why hasn’t anyone done anything with cactus, with nopales? And so, I was like, “I’m going to be the brand to introduce cactus as an alternative sustainable functional ingredient.”
But I knew I needed to do it in an approachable way. In its pure form cactus can be polarizing. Think about it — a plant that grows in the desert that has spikes, and once you manage to handle the paddle, it’s slimy and icky. How can I make this mainstream?
I love tacos, but I’m always on diets. In Mexico we figured out if mixed cactus with corn nixtamal we could reduce the calories and carbs in corn tortillas, in a way elevating something considered not that healthy like a tortilla into a healthy snack, with the nutritional attributes cactus provides.
Every time I went to Mexico, I would also bring packages of cactus because it was not being offered in the states. That was my aha moment. Nobody is selling cactus tortillas here. … And so, that’s how we started with our line of tortillas. I was doing consumer discovery shows, presenting my tortillas to buyers to get feedback to see if the product truly had a lifeline here in the United States. No. 1, yes, everybody loved the tortilla… but I remember a person telling me “These are delicious. Are you going to make tortilla chips, too?”
What is your long-term vision for Tia Lupita?
Mr. Saldívar: Tia Lupita Foods is a Mexican-inspired better-for-you food brand that uses clean and simple ingredients. We’re leaning into sustainability and trying to bring authenticity through innovation as well. We are working with alternative flours; we’re working upcycled flours. Our grain-free cactus tortilla uses upcycled okara. We’re also working with Regrained, which is another upcycled flour company using beer waste. We are coming up with an upcycled tortilla. And we are creating innovation that nobody’s doing.
With the upcycled tortilla, we are helping reduce our carbon footprint by 40%. And not only that, we would save around 80 to 100 gallons of water per pound of tortilla we make using upcycled flours. And it tastes delicious. We feel that we are going to be the Tesla of tortillas.