As a teenager in southern Texas, Veronica Garza thought she'd never be able to enjoy a family dinner again.
Diagnosed with lupus, her grain-free diet took many of the foods she'd grown up eating with her Mexican-American family off the table.
"There was this feeling like I was really missing out on a very important part of my heritage, not being able to [eat] meals that I loved," Garza, now 40, remembers.
She especially missed her grandmother's tortillas, so she started making her own with almond flour instead of corn or wheat flour — heretical to some, and certainly a departure from her grandmother's recipe. But after many weekends spent testing the recipe with her mother in the kitchen, Garza finally felt confident enough to put her tortillas on her family's dinner table.
Her family didn't just approve: Miguel, her brother, spent years trying to convince her to start selling them. In 2014, the two siblings and their mother co-founded Siete Family Foods, which now makes a range of grain-free Mexican-American foods, from tortillas and chips to taco seasoning and dairy-free queso dips.
The Austin, Texas-based company expects to hit $200 million in annual retail sales this year. Its products are sold in more than 16,000 stores across the U.S. and Canada, including retail giants like Walmart, Target and Whole Foods.
The whole family works for Siete: seven of them, hence the name. Veronica is the company's president and chief innovation officer. Her mother, Aida, handles purchasing. Her father, Bobby, a longtime attorney, works in Siete's legal department.
All four of her siblings, too — including Miguel, 34, who is Siete's CEO. His "numerical goal," he says, is to grow Siete to $1 billion in annual revenue by expanding into restaurants and convenience stores.
But his "overarching goal," he says, is for the nearly 100-employee company to always feel like a family business. The company's foundational values are, as he puts it, "family first, family second, business third." And he wants to help other Latinx entrepreneurs along the way.
That's easier said than done.
'We must be nutty' to start a tortilla business
In early 2014, Veronica and Miguel Garza walked into Wheatsville, an Austin-based grocery co-operative. They handed the store's buyer a plastic bag filled with freshly baked tortillas, and insisted he try one while they were still warm.
"As soon as he tasted them, you could see in his eyes that he was excited about them," Veronica says. "He immediately said, 'OK, we'll take these.'"
Wheatsville went even further: The store's employees advised the Garzas on launching a food production operation, from registering the business and creating a brand and logo to renting a small commercial kitchen nearby.
The Garzas initially called their business "Must B Nutty," after the almond flour in their tortillas. And given the siblings' professional degrees — an MBA for Veronica and a law degree for Miguel — they "must be nutty to start making tortillas and turn this into a business," Veronica says.
The commercial kitchen, which they shared with a chocolate-maker, helped the Garzas cook and press up to 30 tortillas at a time — filling up to five industrial refrigerators per week before delivering them to Wheatsville.
"Around May 1, 2014, we put our first couple of cases of product [on] the shelf" at Wheatsville," Miguel says. "May 2, they had sold out of all that product."
Wheatsville's grocery and wellness director, Niki Nash, remembers seeing the Garzas' tortillas flying off shelves — roughly $40,000 worth of them in just eight months — and realizing that Siete was onto something.
"Especially here in Texas, tortillas are everything," Nash says. "We would literally see people coming into our stores, you know, with little tears in their eyes, just like, 'I can finally eat tacos again!'"
Yet other grocery stores were harder to convince. Miguel's biggest target was Whole Foods, which is headquartered in Austin. But convincing the national grocery chain wasn't as easy as walking into a store with a bag of warm tortillas.
"Whole Foods actually told us 'no' a couple of times," he says.
The tide finally turned, Miguel says, when a customer mentioned Siete's tortillas in passing to Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey.
A Whole Foods spokesperson confirms that the word-of-mouth marketing worked: In early 2015, Siete launched in Whole Foods' Austin flagship store.
Helping other Latinx entrepreneurs along the way
Perhaps Siete's timing was lucky.
In 2019, the nonprofit trade group Tortilla Industry Association estimated the country's annual tortilla sales at $16 billion, a sign of the Hispanic foods market's steady growth over the past decade. Analysts also predict that the market for gluten-free and grain-free products will nearly double to reach $7.5 billion by 2027.
The company has already parlayed that momentum into fundraising, landing $90 million from private equity firm Stripes Group in 2019. "The Garza family had found a way to disrupt a market segment which hadn't seen real innovation for quite some time," says Karen Kenworthy, a Stripes Group partner who sits on Siete's board of directors.
But Siete isn't the only game in town. Competitors like Unbun Foods, Tia Lupita and Thrive Market also sell grain-free tortillas. Industry giants like General Mills and Frito-Lay tout their gluten-free products, and grain-free isn't exactly a major stretch.
"Don't give them ideas," Miguel jokes, before striking a more serious tone: "I have a lot of faith in our ability to be competitive in the market."
Part of that means setting yourself apart from competitors. Miguel's strategy: Emphasize the Mexican-American heritage in Siete's branding. It promises customers authenticity, he says, and helps the Garzas use Siete's success to open the door for more Hispanic and Latinx entrepreneurs.
For years, the family hoped their company could inspire other start-up founders and chip away at the obstacles Hispanic and Latinx founders face when seeking investment. Last year, a Crunchbase report found that only 2.4% of all VC funding since 2015 had gone to businesses with Black and Latinx founders.
In April, Siete took a more direct step, announcing an annual $25,000 award for other Latinx-owned food businesses. It's called the Juntos Fund — "together" in Spanish.
Last month, after receiving more than 100 applications, Siete gave its first award to CocoAndre, a Dallas-based chocolatier and horchata-maker. Something about the company felt familiar: CocoAndre is run by a Mexican-American mother-daughter team.
In other words, Veronica says, the fund is already giving Siete an opportunity to live out its mission — family first.
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