According to Hector Saldivar, in Mexico the family heirlooms that get passed down through the generations are recipes.
"All my friends and others would show up to my house with tacos and food, asking for Tia Lupita’s hot sauces," says Saldivar, who launched Tia Lupita Foods with a line of hot sauces using his mother's recipe and affectionately naming the company after his mom, Lupita. Her likeness is also used on the brand's packaging with her most-loved trademark: wearing a curler on her head while she cooks to keep her bangs out of her eyes.
The company has since added a line of cactus-based, grain-free tortilla chips as well as cactus tortillas, which incorporate okara flour from Renewal Mill, winner of the Natural Products Expo 2019 Pitch Slam Rising Star Award. Last week was Saldivar's time to receive recognition—Tia Lupita was named the Grand Prize winner of the Natural Products Expo West 2021 Virtual Pitch Slam.
Here, Saldivar shares what this win will mean for the Mexican-inspired brand, as well as lessons learned after a difficult year.
What is Tia Lupita's mission?
Hector Saldivar: We like to say that our mission is to build a bridge to better-for-you, healthier Mexican food products, but I like to emphasize that when we say better-for-you, we are also including the planet.
HS: Why not?! (Kidding!) Cactus, or nopales, is the food of the future per the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. It is a superfood, high in antioxidants, fiber, iron and calcium while also low glycemic, which helps reduce blood sugar levels. It is delicious, but most importantly, nopales is 100% resilient to global warming and climate change. It grows in barren desert land, and needs very little water to grow, and we can crop and harvest it twice a year. Mayas, Aztecs and Native Americans have been eating nopales since the dawn of their civilizations.
How have you been driving product discovery during the pandemic?
HS: It has been challenging getting the word out when we can’t sample or do live demos, but, fortunately for us, there are 50 million Hispanics living in the U.S. that know about nopales. They love sharing their culture and talking about the food they grew up eating.
In addition, I am thrilled to start seeing more and more brands that are using cactus as an ingredient or overall business platform, brands like Nopalera (beauty and body brand based in NYC), Nemi Hollisticks (healthy snack based in Chicago), Pricklee Water and True Nopal (beverage brands based out of Boston and Scottsdale). All these brands are elevating in some way shape or form the benefits of cactus! Even Olipop uses nopales as an ingredient in its awesome better-for-you soda pops.
Tell me about your partnership with Renewal Mill. How did that come about?
HS: I was invited to talk at a Naturally Bay Area event in January 2020 just before the pandemic, and there I had the opportunity to see Claire Schlemme, co-founder of Renewal Mill, pitch to judges and an entire auditorium of people. It captivated me that this flour existed and thought that it would be a perfect complement to our cactus flour. Claire and I met the next day to start working together on the formulation of our grain-free tortilla, which right now is the most sustainable tortilla in the world. We love that we can say we are helping save the planet one taco at a time!
Where do you see your company in the next three years? What's on the horizon?
HS: Hopefully in three years we are all still here; our objective is to become a household name like Goya, Herdez, La Costeña. We want to expand to other channels like foodservice, club and convenience. We will continue to innovate and bring awesome tasting, better-for-you, healthy Mexican-inspired food products to the market.
What was some good advice you received from the judges or a question that got you thinking?
HS: All the judges were great! The experience and breadth of knowledge they brought is unmeasurable. The one question that caught me off guard was: Why do you think you deserve to win the Pitch Slam? I mean, honestly all the brands participating deserved to win. I was really impressed by the products, packaging and the stories. So why me, right? I think that we have proven that our line of products has traction in the market, which was particularly challenging during an entire year without category reviews or new item acceptances. Just like the cactus, we are survivors, making do with what we’ve got.
What's one piece of advice you'd offer to other brands that are pitching at events such as Expo West?
HS: It goes without saying that you need to be very well prepared—know your numbers, who your consumers are, your differentiation, etc. I think a great brand story is what really resonates with the judges and audience so tell your story well. Be authentic, be yourself and know your why. Lastly, show your passion for what you are building. If you don’t show how passionate you are about your brand, how do you expect others to get excited?
What are you most excited about from your Expo West Virtual Pitch Slam win?
HS: This is a great validator for Tia Lupita. As entrepreneurs, our journey is full of ups and downs. It can be a lonely ride with lots of doubts. Winning this competition confirms that we are doing things right and that we are heading in the right direction. Also, I’m not going to lie, the free booth and the $40,000 in New Hope Network services is pretty great as well!