Kind founder Daniel Lubetzky is joining forces with two former executives from the snack brand to launch a Mexican food company based on the food they ate growing up.
Somos, which means “we are” in Spanish, is accepting wholesale orders from grocery stores and retailers now, with the expectation that its range of rice, beans, salsas, chips and plant-based entrees will reach shelves by January. The company’s e-commerce site starts selling its chips and salsas Tuesday.
Lubetzky joined forces with Kind’s former chief marketing officer, Miguel Leal, and former head of product innovation, Rodrigo Zuloaga, to create Somos. Leal, who serves as the CEO of Somos, previously worked for such food companies as Cholula, Danone, Diamond Foods and PepsiCo’s Frito Lay. All three men were born and raised in Mexico.
Somos’ lineup doesn’t include any meat, gluten or genetically modified ingredients, taking a page from Kind’s playbook. Lubetzky founded the snack company in 2004, touting its bars as healthier than those of the competition. Last year, Snickers maker Mars bought Kind North America in a deal that reportedly valued it at roughly $5 billion. Lubetzky retained a stake in the company and still serves as its executive chairman.
“We’re always surprised at the lack of authenticity in Mexican food,” Leal said. “Most of the food that exists in [consumer packaged goods] is Cal-Mex or Tex-Mex, not the food that we grew up with. We just thought that there was a big opportunity to bring ingredients, techniques, real Mexican food made in Mexico, cooked the Mexican, way into the market.”
Lubetzky said he and Leal used to joke about the differences between the food of their childhood in Mexico and what has defined as Mexican food in the United States.
“Here, in America, in Mexican food, they put this yellow shredded cheese,” he said. “In Mexico, it’s fresh white cheese.”
In Lubetzky’s view, the U.S. restaurant scene is “15, 20 years ahead” of what’s available on the grocery store shelves, which he said are stuck in the 1970s. According to food service research firm CHD Expert, around 65,000 restaurants — or 7% of all U.S. restaurants — are dedicated to Mexican cuisine, as of 2020.
U.S. consumers started eating Mexican food in earnest during the 19th century as railroads carried tourists to the Southwest, according to Jeffrey Pilcher, professor of food history at the University of Toronto. By the 20th century, Chicago meatpackers had begun making chili and selling it in cans, slowly stripping the food of its Mexican identity and making it a U.S. staple. Restaurateurs like Taco Bell founder Glen Bell later made tacos their focus, paving the way for food brands like Old El Paso to start selling its Tex-Mex food in supermarkets nationwide.
Somos is positioning itself as a brand that doesn’t sell Americanized Mexican food but instead uses traditional cooking techniques to draw in consumers and create better-tasting options. Leal said that the company is fire roasting the vegetables for its salsas, stone grinding its corn and slow cooking its beans. Somos is also nixtamalizing its corn, a process that involves cooking dried corn in an alkaline solution to improve its flavor and increase its nutritional value.
Daniel Lubetzky, Founder and CEO of Kind speaking at CNBC’s iConic Conference in Boston.
David A. Grogan | CNBC
“It’s just different from the different tortilla chips that you see in aisle nine,” said Lubetzky.
Somos’ co-founders also contrast their Mexican heritage to other national food brands that sell taco kits and seasoning, which are typically owned by American conglomerates. General Mills owns Old El Paso, Ortega is part of B&G Foods and ConAgra Foods bought Frontera Foods several 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, which also sells taco seasoning kits.
Of course, most supermarkets across the U.S. now usually also carry smaller or regional brands that are made in Mexico or started by Mexican-Americans. For example, Mexican immigrants founded Cacique in 1973 and have since grown it into the largest fresh cheese maker in the U.S.
The question of authenticity in Mexican food is one that even the large U.S. brands have considered. Pilcher said he had previously been hired by a big food company as a consultant to help them create “more authentic” Mexican food, although he said nothing came of it.
“I think they were trying to decide whether it was worthwhile to market to the immigrant population that was becoming prominent at the time that I was having that conversation,” said Pilcher.
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 has helped make Mexican food a multibillion industry.
“As long as there’s been Mexican food in the United States, Americans have been eating it to the point of assimilating it into their own diets and then demanding something more ‘authentic,'” he said.
Now Somos is ready to sell its version of authentic Mexican food to U.S. consumers and take its own bite of the market.
“A lot of people are cooking with these ingredients, but they are looking for authenticity and a story,” said Leal.