From Kind To Bold, SOMOS Foods Brings Together The Essence Of Mexican Cuisine And A New Age Of Latino Entrepreneurship

Food & Drink

When Miguel Leal befriended KIND Snacks’ founder Daniel Lubetzky about 15 years ago while working as an executive at multiple consumer behemoths including PepsiCo
and Danone, Leal vividly recalled how they were the only Mexican immigrants in the industry he knew. That has always baffled the Monterrey native since the local cuisine has already become trendy with comfort dishes from discada, quesadilla to esquites popularly served across the U.S.

For a long time, a handful of Mexican brands are invariably pigeonholed into the ethnic grocery aisle, mirroring many other region-inspired products struggling to penetrate into the broader U.S. household. Notably, the general lack of funding for Hispanic entrepreneurs has prevented truly authentic, high quality food items from flourishing. A recent McKinsey & Company report found that Latinos have the lowest rate of using bank and financial institution loans to start their businesses compared with other racial and ethnic groups.

So when Leal paired up with Lubetzky in early 2021, alongside another former KIND employee Rodrigo Zuloaga who has a background of food science and culinary, to launch SOMOS Foods, the trio decided that representing their heritage while bringing the highest quality homemade food to the U.S. should be the brand’s priority.

“In our culture, taking pride in what you do is not necessarily encouraged,” Leal explained to me during a recent Zoom call, but it’s urgent to change prevalent misconception that Mexican food is always heavy and cheesy.

Part of Leal’s business shrewdness comes from his long-time fascination with grocery retail: when he was a child, Leal’s family, originally hailing from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas that borders Texas, would bring him to the U.S., where Leal became obsessed with peanut butter and products that weren’t typically available in Mexico. Then his later experience working at Kettle and KIND Snacks taught him that quality and convenience are key to winning over the consumer.

In less than two years of operation, SOMOS Foods’ wide range of product offerings from burrito bowls, main dishes, to salsa and rice — all ready-to-eat after cooking in the microwave for 90 seconds — have stocked shelves of more than 4,000 retail locations under major banners, such as Albertsons
and H-E-B. The goal is to secure approximately 5,000 listings by year end, according to Leal, while ramping up social media presence through influencer partnerships and collaborative recipes.

SOMOS’ non-GMO and gluten-free products are all manufactured locally in Mexico to preserve their authenticity, while their ingredients are sustainably sourced from multi-generational family farms.

The company’s brown rice, for example, is soaked in red salsa with ancho and guajillo peppers and onions, while its salsa varieties are made with peppers and other vegetables in a slow-roasting process, called “tatemado” in Spanish, representing a more traditional culinary method. Such processing, Leal stressed, can help to blend the liquid and vegetables evenly in their finished products, further enhancing the tasting experience. Additionally, SOMOS’ team is also keenly aware of the burgeoning plant-based trend among U.S. shoppers, launching a line of Peacadillo made with pea protein.

Despite that SOMOS Foods was initially launched through direct-to-consumer, it’s in fact a heavily retail-focused brand, according to Leal. “A lot of brands are working very hard to get out of the ethnic aisle, but what I found out through building Cholula and now SOMOS is retailers actually want better products for this spacious section,” he argued. “By bringing better tastes and rich culture, I think there’s still a lot we can do to improve how this grocery aisle is set up today. SOMOS offers meal solutions instead of ingredients, making it easy for people to cook Mexican food at home.”

“We’re playing the long game,” Leal added, “and great brands are oftentimes a mixed result of awareness and trial.”

SOMOS’s retail-first strategy also makes sense given the vast distribution network its founders have already built through KIND, acquired by Mars in 2020; and Equilibra, Lubetzky’s family office that has garnered a fast-growing CPG portfolio, including Belgian Boys and gimMe Snacks.

However, unlike the rest of Equilibra’s portfolio, SOMOS Foods was directly incubated out of the investing firm, and has been in development for years prior to its official launch. “That was the original Shark Tank before Shark Tank,” Leal jokingly said, hinting that Lubetzky has inherited an idea-sharing leadership style long before he became a judge on the business reality TV show.

“Daniel values respectful disagreements a lot,” Leal continued, which helps all three cofounders brainstorm the best executions for SOMOS. “What you see on Shark Tank is exactly how Daniel is.”

To best represent SOMOS’ cultural roots, the brand hired a Monterrey-based, women-owned creative agency, Common Matter, to design its packaging inspired by alebrijes — a brightly colored mystical creature in the traditional Mexican folk art. The brand also deliberately uses colors found in nature: for example, yellow was inspired by cempasúchil, a specifies of flowering plants native to Mexico. The Aztecs, the dominant ethnic group from central Mexico in the post-classic period, would cultivate this plant for medicinal, ceremonial and decorative purposes.

The birth of SOMOS Foods, for Leal at least, marks a new milestone for fellow Latino and immigrant founders. “Representation matters especially in food and CPG,” he said, “and we should be telling our stories loudly and proudly.”

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