The friendly founder Daniel Lubetzky and two former executives from the snack brand start a Mexican food company based on the foods they grew up with.
Somos, which means “we are” in Spanish, is now taking wholesale orders from grocery stores and retailers in anticipation of their range of rice, beans, salsas, chips and plant-based appetizers reaching shelves by January. The company’s e-commerce site will begin selling its chips and salsas on Tuesday.
Lubetzky has teamed up with former Kind Chief Marketing Officer Miguel Leal and former Product Innovation Director Rodrigo Zuloaga to create Somos. Leal, who serves as the CEO of Somos, previously worked for food companies like Cholula, Danone, Diamond Foods and Frito Lay from PepsiCo. All three men were born and raised in Mexico.
Somos’ range contains no meat, gluten, or genetically modified ingredients, a page from Kind’s playbook. Lubetzky founded the snack company in 2004 and advertised its bars as being healthier than those of the competition. Last year, Snickers maker Mars Kind North America bought in a deal that was reportedly valued at around $ 5 billion. Lubetzky retained a stake in the company and continues to be its CEO.
“We’re always surprised at the lack of authenticity in Mexican food,” said Leal. “Most of the food that is in [consumer packaged goods] is Cal-Mex or Tex-Mex, not the food we grew up with. We just thought there was a great opportunity to bring ingredients, techniques, real Mexican food made in Mexico to market. “
Lubetzky said he and Leal joked about the differences between their childhood food in Mexico and what was defined as Mexican food in the United States.
“Here in America, in Mexican food, that yellow cheese is grated,” he said. “In Mexico it’s fresh white cheese.”
According to Lubetzky, the US dining scene is “15, 20 years ahead” of what’s on the shelves of grocery stores stuck in the 1970s. According to the food service research company CHD Expert, around 65,000 restaurants – or 7% of all US restaurants – will be dedicated to Mexican cuisine as of 2020.
According to Jeffrey Pilcher, professor of food history at the University of Toronto, U.S. consumers began eating Mexican dishes in earnest in the 19th century when railways took tourists to the Southwest. In the 20th century, Chicago meat packers began making and canning chili, slowly stripping the food of its Mexican identity and making it a staple in the United States. Restaurateurs like Taco Bell’s founder, Glen Bell, later made tacos their main focus, paving the way for grocery brands like Old El Paso to sell their Tex-Mex food in supermarkets across the country.
Somos positions itself as a brand that does not sell Americanized Mexican foods, but uses traditional cooking techniques to attract consumers and create better taste options. Leal said the company roasted the vegetables for its salsas on fire, grinds its corn with stones, and slowly cooks its beans. Somos also nixtamalizes their corn, a process that involves cooking dried corn in an alkaline solution to improve its taste and increase its nutritional value.
Daniel Lubetzky, Founder and CEO of Kind, speaks at CNBC’s iConic conference in Boston.
David A. Grogan | CNBC
“It’s just different from the various tortilla chips you see in aisle nine,” said Lubetzky.
The co-founders of Somos also contrast their Mexican heritage with other national food brands that sell taco kits and condiments usually owned by American conglomerates. General Mills owns Old El Paso, Ortega is part of B&G Foods, and ConAgra Foods bought Frontera Foods a few years ago. Chi-Chi’s is a joint venture between Hormel Foods and Mexico-based Herdez Del Fuerte. Even Leal’s former employer Cholula is owned by McCormick, who also sells taco seasoning sets.
Of course, most supermarkets in the US now also carry smaller or regional brands that were manufactured in Mexico or founded by Mexican-Americans. For example, Cacique was founded in 1973 by Mexican immigrants and has since become the largest cream cheese maker in the United States
The question of authenticity in Mexican food is one that even the big US brands have considered. Pilcher said he was previously hired as a consultant to a major food company to help them create more “authentic” Mexican food, although he said nothing came of it.
“I think they wanted to decide whether it was worth marketing the immigrant population that was emerging at the time I had this conversation,” Pilcher said.
According to Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, the demand for authenticity helped make Mexican food a billion dollar industry.
“As long as there is Mexican food in the United States, Americans eat it enough to include it in their own diet and then ask for something ‘more authentic’,” he said.
Now Somos is ready to sell its version of authentic Mexican food to US consumers and take its own bite out of the market.
“Lots of people cook with these ingredients, but they’re looking for authenticity and a story,” says Leal.