November 16, 2023
From a young age, Maria Covarrubias loved cooking with her family, inspiring her to become a professionally trained chef. She charted a successful career working at acclaimed restaurants and as a corporate culinary chef, but always dreamed of starting her own hot sauce brand.
Three years ago, the universe told Covarrubias it was time, so she and her husband, Felipe Cross, co-founded Cien Chiles, offering a line of vibrant sauces made with natural, nutritious, sustainably sourced, clean ingredients. The San Diego, Calfornia–based brand grew significantly in short order, with retailers lining up to carry the sauces.
Covarrubias kept the hot streak going by finishing first runner-up at the Naturally San Diego Pitch Slam. Now this woman-owned, immigrant-owned business is entering its next phase of growth, and Covarrubias is stoked to continue building brand awareness.
What inspired you to start this company?
Maria Covarrubias: Growing up in Mexico, we always made fresh salsas at home. When I moved to the United States 12-plus years ago, I really missed having those flavors of home available. So, I thought to myself, maybe one day I will start a hot sauce brand that brings the homemade flavors of my childhood to the market.
Jump to August 2020. At that time, I was the corporate culinary chef at Chosen Foods, and my husband, Felipe, had lost his transportation business to the pandemic. In this time of hardship, I figured it was the perfect time for me to support my family with what I know best: food. My brain immediately went to the homemade salsas of my childhood, and Cien Chilies was born.
Maria Covarrubias, founder
What was your first product?
MC: Our first recipe was our coveted The Habanero. Then from there it was The Mustard, the crown jewel, so incredible and unique. Then The Jalapeño, easy and accomplished in three takes. Our line originally included only the three salsas, but there was something telling me we needed a fourth to provide a well-rounded heat and flavor offering to our consumer. I then formulated The Thai Bird to spice up the party!
What sales channels did you launch into?
MC: For the first six months we were mainly direct-to-consumer with a small presence on e-commerce. We also partnered with a couple of local retailers in San Diego to start getting the word out.
What has your growth trajectory been?
MC: The demand got so high that in January 2021 we already needed to produce a large run of all four salsas. From there, we kept growing and growing. More and more retailers wanted our products on their shelves. In less than a year, Whole Foods Market wanted our salsas! We then partnered with a large distributor, and it opened so many doors for us.
As the growth of the brand kept being evident, it was finally time for me to leave my corporate job, now as the culinary director [at Chosen Foods] and invest my full time and attention to my “side gig.” It was definitely a scary step, but at the end of the day, nothing beats working for yourself and growing something that you believe in.
What makes your brand and products particularly innovative?
MC: The thing that most stands out about Cien Chiles is the unique and authentic flavors—we win in flavor. And we use all-natural ingredients, no chemicals and no funny business—just the heart and taste of home from Guadalajara, Mexico, making Cien Chilies simply the best.
What was it like competing in the Naturally San Diego Pitch Slam?
MC: Right after I left my corporate job, I was able to pitch Cien Chiles at the third annual Naturally San Diego Pitch Slam—and we won second place! It was such an incredible experience to connect with our community and build stronger bonds with our tribe.
Read more about:J.E.D.I.
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