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Shop Small is a bi-weekly series highlighting small business owners from diverse backgrounds. This series aims to go deeper than your typical product roundup, diving into the inspirational stories behind some of our favorite brands. By taking a behind-the-scenes look at how their shops came to be and highlighting the products they (and their shoppers!) love, we hope to put a deserving spotlight on these marginalized business owners.
Miguel Leal has always been fascinated with food, mostly because his culture celebrates diversity. That’s the thing about Mexican food, he says. “It’s so diverse.” But his decision to make this passion into a career stemmed from a childhood memory when he was just eight years old. He grew up in a little border town called Nuevo Laredo, a few hundred miles from the United States. His grandparents and cousins lived on the other side, and during family visits and holidays, he crossed over into an environment unlike his own.
“I was marveled by all the different assortments; products that didn't even exist in Mexico like peanut butter, fish sticks or the hundreds of different cereals,” Leal says. “I felt like I could have spent hours just looking at the products.”
Fast forward a few years later, Leal entered the food industry, working for Pepsi and other well-known food brands before transitioning to Kind Bars as their EVP of Marketing. That's where he met Daniel Lubetzky, the founder of Kind Bars, and Rodrigo Zuloaga, another executive. Like Leal, Lubetzky and Zuloaga too grew up in the kitchen, celebrating the diversity of Mexican cuisine. It was this cultural connection between the three of them that led to the founding of SOMOS, a Mexican food brand that offers ready-to-eat products and recipes.
“The three of us were living in New York City and were marveled by how much Mexican food changed in restaurants,” Leal says. “It became fresher, more authentic, and reminded us of the food that we ate growing up. But as people who have been in the industry of consumer products for many years, we didn't see that change on the shelf, we didn't see that representation of the food we grew up with go from restaurant to the shelf. And we started SOMOS with a mission to change that.”
SOMOS may be less than a year old, but it’s already shaking up the Mexican food industry from the suppliers to the consumers. Below, Leal explains how.
The Challenges of Building the Brand
The creators of SOMOS may have had food consumer experience but building a food brand from scratch is a difficult task, even for the most knowledgeable. Leal says the most difficult process wasn’t the research and development phase or the beta testing but establishing the supply chain.
Leal knew he wanted to work directly with Mexican suppliers. That wasn’t the issue. Problems arose when Leal decided to make SOMOS a GMO-free, gluten-free, and plant-based brand. “We knew one of the biggest misconceptions we wanted to fight was that Mexican food has to be greasy, has to be full of fat, has a lot of empty calories,” he says. “When in reality, the food we grew up with was a lot of vegetables, full of very healthy nutrients.”
But the Mexican suppliers didn’t have the certification to ensure SOMOS’ products would be GMO-free, gluten-free, or plant-based. Sure, these suppliers handled gluten-free ingredients, like rice, beforehand, but there was no system in place for cross-contamination. Rather than transitioning over to a new supply chain, Leal decided to work with the Mexican partners to establish the first gluten-free, non-GMO, plant-based supply chain in Mexico.
It was indeed challenging, but Leal wouldn’t have had it any other way. “Although I've been in the industry for more than 25 years, the biggest learning from this particular experience is that there are no shortcuts to success. In order to do things right, you have to really put in the time to develop these relationships. Relationships are very important in Mexican culture, and I am so happy that we did it.”
The Art of Marketing
The conscious decision to work with local Mexican partners didn’t stop with the supply chain – the creators designed an ecosystem of Mexican partners for the brand's advertising and marketing. A quick glance at SOMOS’ site shows a range of beautiful shades and colorful shapes, a form of folk art known as alebrijes.
You may have seen alebrijes before; the Disney film Coco uses the art extensively. But aside from the film, the art form hasn’t been generally explored by Western audiences, says Leal. This lack of exposure and appreciation of alebrijes is the reason Leal and his co-founders decided to incorporate this folk art into the packaging.
Imagine this: you’re walking down the international food aisle and stumble across SOMOS’ packaging. Each salsa jar, tortilla chips, and rice pouch are colored differently in “very vibrant colors with different patterns between them,” Leal says. And as you’re walking, you notice how the different shades and shapes come together. This is the core of SOMOS.
“[It’s] the ethos of SOMOS, bringing our differences, our differences in food, our differences in recipes, our differences in color, and together, making something even more beautiful,” Leal says.
Shifting the Perception of Mexican Culture
Mexican food is more than just stereotypes. Rice and beans, tacos, chips and salsa are parts of Mexican cuisine, but there’s so much more.
“We feel like, in the U.S., there is often a blanket approach to Mexican cuisine and culture,” Leal says. “In reality, Mexican food is very diverse, so we tried to start out with bringing some of that diversity into people's homes.”
This is why SOMOS offers different types of recipes for vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters. It’s the reason the founders are taking their families’ secret recipes and transforming them into ready-to-made products for everyday consumers. SOMOS’ products are celebrating the nutritional value of Mexican food and the diversity of its ingredients.
From the food to the packaging, SOMOS celebrates the culture of Mexico. But most of all, SOMOS challenges us to consider what is real Mexican food. It encourages you to think about the prejudices we have about a culture we might be unfamiliar with. And, what better way to learn and understand the authenticity of the culture than through a medium everyone loves: food.
“By making food that is nutritious and delicious, packaging that has a lot of Mexican art in it, and talking about culture in each of our recipes, I hope we broaden America's horizon about what real Mexican food is,” Leal says. “My mom used to tell me when I was kid that once you fall in love with the food, you fall in love with the culture. And that's really what we want to do with someone.”
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