Siete Family Foods Is Reimagining Mexican-American Cuisine

A health problem led one Mexican-American family to get creative with the food on their table—and take an entire industry by storm.

Chatting on live television on the 2020 Golden Globes red carpet in January, E! host Ryan Seacrest and Gwyneth Paltrow took a break from gabbing about her new Netflix show, The Politician, to gush over a seemingly far less provocative subject—tortilla chips.

“Have you ever tried these Siete chips?” said the Academy Award-winning actress, Goop founder, and wellness guru, glowing in her sheer, tulle Fendi dress. In the hard-hitting fashion red carpet interviews are known for, Seacrest had just asked her about the kinds of food she keeps in her pantry.

“Oh my gosh, I’m obsessed with Siete,” Seacrest said, raving about the line of dairy-, gluten-, soy-, and grain-free Mexican food products. “I met the family, the woman who founded Siete, they’re incredible. Anyway, check it out!” he said, pointing to viewers at home. And just like that, the brand that started in a home kitchen in South Texas reached millions of viewers.

National publications, from Harpers Bazaar to Us Weekly magazine to Delish, ran the news under headlines like “Gwyneth Paltrow Reveals Her ‘Pretty Regular’ Go-To Snack at Golden Globes” and “Gwyneth Paltrow Reveals Her Favorite Latinx Food Brand at the Golden Globes.” The founders of Siete couldn’t have asked for a better promotion if they had planned—or paid—for it. “I was so mad at myself that I wasn’t watching the red carpet like I usually do every year!” says Veronica Garza, BA ’03, co-founder, president, and chief innovation officer of Siete Family Foods, and one of the seven Garza family members—all of whom attended UT Austin—behind the brand. “I started getting all of these messages from friends saying, ‘They’re talking about you!’ It wasn’t paid for. [Paltrow] just happened to bring up that she loves our chips on national television.”

It’s been nearly three weeks since Paltrow name-dropped Siete and I’m sitting with Veronica and her brother, Miguel Garza, BBA ’09, JD ’12, the brand’s co-founder and CEO, inside Siete headquarters, composed of a few small buildings off Burnet Road in north Austin. We’re in the lounge, where the 73 staff members eat, hang out, and work. There’s a fridge full of Siete snacks and Topo Chico, a full bar, and a CrossFit-style gym where the team works out and does yoga together multiple times a week. From the multi-colored picket fence to the lotería-inspired prints hanging on the walls, the entire property is decked out in the vibrant turquoise, magenta, orange, green, and purple that match the Siete packaging you might recognize from the grocery store.

It’s the same place I met the Garza siblings, and their parents Aida, a co-founder, and Bobby—who fell in love on UT’s campus—in 2017 when I first approached them about a story. At that time, Veronica was commuting weekly between Austin and the family’s hometown of Laredo, Texas, a border town nearly 240 miles southwest of the capital where Aida, ’76, Bobby, BBA ’76, and their daughters Linda, BJ ’97, and Rebecca Garza Cuellar, BS ’06, MA ’08, were still living. The Siete team was only 18 people, Miguel had just been named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 2017 list, and Siete’s products were limited to tortillas and chips, sold in only four regions around the United States.

In the three years since, Siete has become a national success, and its full line of Mexican-American heritage-inspired foods, including queso, taco seasonings, and hot sauces, are stocked in more than 13,000 supermarkets across the country. The company’s products can be found in nearly every H-E-B, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, and Kroger in the U.S. And it has become a part of just 2 percent of Latino-owned businesses doing north of $1 million in revenue a year.

“There’s definitely no other Mexican-American food brand doing what ours does,” Veronica says. And that’s because Siete’s success isn’t just statistically unlikely. The Garzas—six of whom are officially living in Austin now—with their vegan, paleo, and health-conscious products, managed to break into the Mexican food market, which has typically been rooted in tradition and a sense of pride. And even while creating a brand Hollywood stars are raving about, the Garzas retained their sense of authenticity. They often talk about what it means to be of Mexican heritage while having been raised American. They call it “the hyphen,” a symbolic way of describing their culture as not being totally one thing or the other. It’s this approach, and their commitment to family, that has allowed the Garzas to re-imagine some of the most classic foods from their own culture and be well-received by their community at the same time.

***

I grew up a three-hour drive southeast of Laredo in the Rio Grande Valley, on the border of Mexico, in a community not much different than the Garzas’. Growing up in a Latino household in a predominantly Mexican-American region, food and the traditions surrounding it played a major role in my life. What we eat is about bringing families—especially ones as large as my parents’, with a cumulative 16 siblings—together.

For instance, leading up to the holidays, preparing food as a family becomes a whole production. There are the tamaladas, or tamal-making parties, where everyone gathers to stuff the meat in the masa, or corn dough, and wrap each tamal so they’re ready for Christmas dinner. I miss the times I’d stay up late with my cousins, helping my aunt make buñuelos—cinnamon fried dough treats—for New Year’s Eve, a tradition I don’t always get to be a part of since I moved away. Following my quinceañera, close friends and family came over to my parent’s home and stayed long after midnight eating menudo, a Mexican soup made with tripe and often served after a celebration or a night out at the club.

When my grandpa died earlier this year, our family ordered botanas—giant platters of tortilla chips coated in cheese, assorted fajitas, peppers, veggies, and refried beans that families pick at communally—for everyone to eat at my aunt’s house where we gathered after the funeral service. And then there are the rituals as simple as my father driving one city over every Sunday morning before my mom and I had even woken up to pick up pan dulce, or pastries, for our breakfast, just because he liked to end the weekend on a sweet note.

The first time we met, Veronica and I bonded over shared feelings around identity, culture, and the prominent role food plays in our lives. We’ve also both experienced the disorienting feeling that comes from being told you have to give all that up.

In April 2017, about a month before I first interviewed the Garzas, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes an underactive thyroid. There’s no telling how long I had been living with the condition, but it explained why that last year had been so rough on my body. My hair had thinned, I was overweight, anxious, my back and joints ached, and I napped all the time. According to the Washington Post, an estimated 23.5 million people suffer from an autoimmune condition. Aside from medication, my doctor told me the best way to treat my disorder is consistent exercise and an anti-inflammatory diet. That means consuming foods that prevent or reduce low-grade chronic inflammation—no dairy, soy, gluten, grains, and other assorted foods. Basically, everything I like to eat.

When Veronica went through something similar at 17, it became the impetus for Siete. In 1999, her doctor diagnosed her with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), an autoimmune disorder that results in the immune system mistakenly attacking platelets and preventing blood from clotting. A few years later, she was also diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, mixed connective tissue disease, and Lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue. Like me, these disorders caused her to experience fatigue, weight gain, depression, and a myriad of more severe symptoms. And so in 2009, Veronica completely changed her diet. Because the Garza’s core family value is the idea that “together is better”—which also happens to be Siete’s motto, “juntos es mejor”-—her family joined her in going grain-free.

“It was easy for the rest of us because we were supporting Vero,” Aida says.

Together, the Garzas opened a CrossFit gym in Laredo called G7, which they ran from 2009-16, and made the commitment to adopt Veronica’s new anti-inflammatory diet. The transition would be difficult enough for her—the least they could do was make sure she wasn’t the odd person out at the dinner table.

Gone, of course, were the family’s days of tacos made with flour and corn tortillas. For about a year, the Garza family got their taco fix by putting meat in a lettuce wrap. It was a noble sacrifice for their health, but a lousy substitute for the real thing.

Ten years ago, there weren’t many options on the shelves for people in search of healthy alternatives. “Now there are gluten-free cake mixes!” Aida points out. And so when the family grew tired of their makeshift taquitos, Veronica started toying with an idea for a grain-free tortilla. At home in Laredo, she and her mother began experimenting with almond flour and cassava, the starchy tuberous root of a woody shrub native to South America that has a texture similar to wheat. Together they created what would eventually become the first product in the Siete line: the Almond Flour Tortilla. It’s a thin, almost buttery tortilla, made up of almond flour, tapioca flour, water, sea salt, and xanthan gum that tastes and feels so close to a flour tortilla, the difference is barely noticeable.

Nervously, in 2014, they presented the tortilla to their late abuela Alicia Campos, who had been making homemade flour tortillas for almost as long as she’d been alive. “She tried them and said, ‘Vero! These tortillas are better than mine!’” Veronica laughs. Once they had her blessing, the Garzas knew they had something special.

***

Siete wasn’t an overnight success, but it was pretty quick.

The Garzas started serving their new tortillas to friends, family, neighbors, and gym-goers in Laredo. People often asked for the recipe, but Veronica refused to share it—she had a feeling what she had created might be worth something some day. Meanwhile, Miguel, fresh out of Texas Law, was living in Austin and trying to figure out his next move. Seeing an opportunity in the success of Veronica’s tortillas back home, he proposed taking a few packs door to door to grocers in Austin to gauge interest.

“I was sneaky enough to jump into the venture with [my mom and Vero],” he laughs. “My approach was simple. I would microwave the tortillas, so they’d be hot, then drive to a store and ask them to taste it.”

Wheatsville Co-op, the local grocery store on South Lamar, was the first to give them a shot in 2014. They told Miguel they were willing to sell the tortillas but first the Garzas needed to register Siete as a real business, get a commercial kitchen, and meet industry standards. The Garzas got to work, and soon enough they were on the shelves at Wheatsville. “Pretty immediately they were calling us, saying, ‘Hey can you bring more? We’re selling through these quickly,’” Miguel says.

By early 2015, Miguel had found success around town, securing placement for the tortillas at the local Whole Foods locations, specialty health-food restaurant Picnik, and Peoples Pharmacy on South Lamar. Veronica—who was an instructor at Texas A&M International University in Laredo at the time—Aida, and Roberto began commuting to Austin every weekend to spend hours in the kitchen they rented, making and packaging tortillas as demand increased. By the end of that summer, Whole Foods had asked them to be in every Texas store. And by January 2016, nearly the whole family was in on the business and Whole Foods was ready to start supplying four new regions around the U.S. with their product.

Before I met the Garzas, and before I had to be hyper-vigilant about what I was feeding my body—inspecting labels, planning meals, and finding substitutes just to avoid eating something that would make me immediately physically ache—I hadn’t realized the importance of being represented in food. The idea of wellness, which could be defined as the trend of reaching a more holistic state of being, and not just the absence of illness, isn’t a popular concept in my culture. Wellness tends to be an exclusionary and expensive industry, designed for, and dominated by, people who tend to look like, well, Paltrow.

Family and friends often joke that I’m not “a real Mexican” because I admittedly have a low tolerance for spicy foods. Over holidays, I’m teased by my family for living in Austin, and am therefore, in their eyes, out of touch with our world. Abandoning the foods I’d been raised with felt like just another thing to add to the list of reasons why I don’t quite fit. And I felt uneducated on how to break into a world of places like Whole Foods, a chain that doesn’t exist south of San Antonio in Texas. Like that idea of the “hyphen” the Garzas talk about, I’m not always sure how to be two things at once. But having a tortilla that wouldn’t hurt me, even in all its unconventional glory, made my situation feel a bit more normal.

***

Veronica says what really pushed her family to turn their lives upside down, to work more than they ever had, was their mission: making food for people like them who are trying to live healthier lives. “We were getting lots of messages from people who were like, ‘Thank you for this product, my son feels like a normal kid again because he can eat tacos,’” Veronica says. “And it sounds crazy, but what drove me was this idea that we can help so many more people—and just with a tortilla.”

Though, of course, it’s a welcome bonus to be the subject of red carpet talk. And whether the Garzas expected Siete to reach the level of notoriety it appears to have, it’s the brand’s new reality. In March, best-selling author and social scientist Brené Brown, BA ’95, Life Member, brought up Siete in an explicitly sponsored ad before her podcast Unlocking Us. She spoke for eight minutes about the Garzas and why she genuinely supports their products, sharing her story about her gluten-intolerant daughter. “This is a brand really near and dear to my heart, and to my family,” Brown said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Austin, it upended the local business scene. As the weeks faded into one another, reports of local insitutions closing permanently started coming out—gone are restaurants like Threadgills, Shady Grove, and Enchiladas y Mas. But Siete was making headlines for a different reason.

The brand was doing what it could to help local relief efforts, partnering with Ponder Foods and Panache Development and Construction to deliver hand sanitizer to Dell Medical School. And on April 28, the Central Texas Food Bank issued a donation challenge, announcing that Siete would match all gifts up to $250,000.

“We are very grateful that we are in a position to help during times like these,” Veronica says. “We are so proud of our team for all of their hard work that has allowed us to be in a position to give to others. We don’t know what the future holds for us or the world, but we know as long as we’re getting there together, we have a fighting chance at taking on whatever obstacles come our way.”

In early 2019, Siete raised $90 million in funding through a deal with the Stripes Group, a private equity firm. This partnership and the brand’s growing popularity have set Siete up to be a conduit for philanthropic projects. The Garzas consider their business a mission-based company, donating products and a portion of proceeds to organizations like the Hispanic Impact Fund and Con Mi MADRE that benefit underserved communities. And as one of a few Latino-owned businesses in venture capital, they see it as their responsibility to lift up other minorities with a similar dream. “How can we help that statistic of the ‘2 percent’ grow?” Miguel says. “How do we get more Latino-owned businesses above that threshold?”

There are still strides to be made in the world of healthy food and access to it, and Siete is no exception. Like most healthy alternatives, the products are more expensive than what typical Mexican food products would cost—a pack of eight almond tortillas costs $8 compared to H-E-B’s 20-count pack of flour tortillas that costs $4. And accessibility can be a problem for areas that need options most. In my hometown of McAllen—thrice named the most obese city in the nation—we don’t have an abundance of health stores and our H-E-B stores don’t stock the full range of Siete products, let alone an array of items to choose from for people like me.

These days, the family is focused on growing their team, getting into more stores, and expanding their products. Veronica leads the product development team; as CEO, Miguel runs the business side of things; Bobby and Linda take care of legal; Aida manages purchasing; and Rebecca and Robert, ’99, take care of customers. “These last three years have been surreal,” Veronica says. “I think in order to get here, you have to have a vision that this is possible, but it was kind of like a dream I wasn’t ever sure would happen.”

She says Siete couldn’t have been possible without her family. The Garzas’ commitment to each other, their unfiltered approach to addressing the dichotomy that comes with being Mexican-American, the family portraits found on the back of packaging, and even their use of Spanglish all contribute to the authenticity the brand has achieved. “It’s family first, family second, and business third,” she says. “This is probably the first thing I’ve ever done where I truly feel like my job is allowing me to help people. And it’s rewarding that we get to do this as a family. Not a lot can say that.”

To be honest, I didn’t know tortillas could spark this much conversation. But as I write this piece, I’m nearly 10 weeks into the pandemic and crashing with my parents back in my hometown. Attempting to cook for myself every day has felt like an immense chore and, like any time you’re displaced from your own space, my eating routine is out of sorts. Still, I’m trying to take this time to get back to eating properly. There’s no time like a pandemic to make sure your body is functioning as well as it can be. The Garzas are right though—it’s hard to practice self-control when you’re the only one in the house who can’t order from the taqueria or shouldn’t be eating the cake we picked up for Mother’s Day.

But then the other day, as I was chomping down on a Siete tortilla filled with chicken and vegan cheese at the kitchen table, my mom walked in from a trip to the grocery store. As she was unbagging the groceries, she exclaimed, “Look!” while shaking two boxes of pasta in her hands. “They’re gluten-free so we can all have spaghetti tomorrow!” I smiled. I was touched. Though it was a small act, it was my family showing me they care; they see me. It was their way of saying, “Let’s try this together.”

Photos courtesy of Siete Family Foods. From top: From left, Robert Garza, Veronica Garza, Rebecca Cuellar Garza, Linda Garza, Aida Garza, Bobby and Miguel Garza at Siete headquarters in Austin; various Siete chip flavors and hot sauce; the Siete team in the office gym; Veronica Garza; the Garzas and their friends and family at dinner; veggie picadillo tacos made with Siete products; Siete headquarters; the Garza family in 1994.

 
 
 

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