Co-Founder and President, Siete Foods
Familia, food, and female empowerment are pillars of the Mi Golondrina brand, and it’s safe to say the same holds true for the founder/President of Siete Foods, Veronica Garza. Her story is imbued with personal experience and culture. After having been diagnosed with Lupus among other auto-immune diseases in 2004, Garza began implementing a serious workout regiment and eating a grain-free diet. Her four siblings and parents joined in on the efforts, opening a family gym and sharing grain free meals together. It didn’t take very long to discover just how much of a challenge eating their traditional Mexican food with the new constraints of Garza’s diet would be. Following four years of kitchen experimentation, countless redos, and final approval from her grandmother, the first of Siete Foods was born (a grain free almond flour tortilla!). What has today blossomed into a family-run company with $90 mm in private equity backing and distribution in over 13,000 stores all began with one woman’s inspirational journey. We are honored to feature Veronica Garza as our Mujer for February.
You started with one tortilla that took years to make. What made you keep going? Did you always have your eyes set on making products for the masses?
Before founding Siete Foods, I had no formal culinary training and little business experience that would prepare me to start a food company reaching consumers at a national scale (although I did get my MBA in 2008). I was working in a job that I didn’t love, but it provided stability––and health insurance. I knew I had created something that could solve problems for more people outside of my family and friends, but I didn’t know where to start and was afraid of losing the safety of my current job. I spent years trying to figure out how I could scale production and sell the tortillas to a wider customer base. It was ultimately my brother who convinced me to just try and find a customer––together. It’s hard to imagine making that transition without my family by my side. They encouraged me to keep going every step of the way. That togetherness is ingrained into our company’s values: we live by the words “Juntos es Mejor,” or together is better. To this day, knowing that our products continue to solve problems for people and that they can enjoy foods they might not have been able to otherwise is what keeps me going during the toughest of days.
Meals are such a big part of so many cultures; what are meal staples for you and your family (aside from tortillas!)?
A tradition very near and dear to our hearts is a Laredo-style carne asada. In Laredo, “carne asada” isn't just a taco filling, it's a cookout where you bring friends and family into your home. I have many happy memories of Friday nights cooking up a storm in the kitchen with my mom and sisters, my brother-in-law manning the grill, and everyone spending time together while eating delicious fajita tacos.
How did you get your first ‘big break’ into stores for distribution?
Years after I made an almond flour tortilla in Laredo, my brother Miguel convinced me the time was right and suggested we start small and find one customer. We first approached a small grocery store in Austin, Wheatsville Co-op before even formalizing a business. We made the buyer taste our tortillas on the floor, and he agreed to carry our product! With some guidance from their buyer, my family and I set out to form a business. We knocked on doors and found a gluten free bakery that would allow us to rent their kitchen during their off-hours. Within a few months, we had decided on a name, created packaging, and spent hours in the kitchen to deliver our first batch of tortillas to the store. The Austin community was very receptive to our product, evidenced by the fact that our entire stock sold out in a day! We knew it was the start of something exciting, but we couldn’t have imagined where we are today.
What are the biggest perks of working with family? And what are the biggest challenges?
From the beginning of our Siete Foods journey we have said, ‘family first, family second, business third.’ This principle is extremely important to running a business for us. When we founded Siete Foods, our family values became our foundational business values. Working as a family helps to make accomplishing difficult things more possible, in the same way an individual can feel supported to accomplish great things because of supportive relatives. There is a trust and love built into our foundation that I don’t think would have existed if we didn’t start this business together. We had a core group of people that we loved and trusted, and we didn’t have to go out into the marketplace to find that. We don’t claim to be perfect and we have had our struggles, as any business would, but these core values get us through any conflict that ever comes about. Plus, having your mom on the team makes it impossible to do anything but “get along” or else she makes us sit on the metaphorical sofa and hug it out for 10 minutes like we literally did when we were kids.
What’s the process like for new product development? How does it start and what is the journey?
Our goal is to always create products that are made with “Salud y Sabor” or “health and flavor.” I spend much of my time collaborating with our R&D team to create new products that are heritage-inspired and fundamentally innovative. I often find myself developing products based on my own needs at the time, just as I did with our first product. We listen to feedback from our customers and try to develop products that can solve a problem or a need. We always start with flavor first because no one should have to sacrifice taste for their health or dietary needs. When we are happy with a recipe we begin working with multiple team members across various functions to get the product manufactured, distributed, and in our customers hands. However, the journey for any product is never over because no product is ever “finished” to me, and I am constantly looking into ways to improve upon them.
If you could go back in time 15 years when you were starting this journey, what kernels of wisdom would you share with your former self?
I would tell myself to get comfortable with the idea that you may not have all the answers, knowledge, or experience you think you might need to start a business; learn to ask for help—whether it’s from a mentor, family, or friend. You can start small and learn along the way. Compared to your peers, even if you do not see yourself well-represented among entrepreneurs, don’t let that discourage you from giving it a shot.
You can start small and learn along the way.
Four of your five siblings and your parents are all part of the family business. How did you decide which role each person would take? Was it pretty self-evident?
When we first got started we started filling in roles as needed. Initially, that meant we needed help in the kitchen to hand press tortillas. As we grew, we started assuming the roles where we felt we could be most useful at the time. I am an introvert and don’t love selling, so I focused my time on product innovation, a role that fulfilled my creative side. My brother loved talking about our products and brand and initially took on the responsibilities of our first salesperson and then CEO. My mother has taken on many duties since we started our business, filling in to help with accounting, HR, and anywhere else she was needed. My father and sister are attorneys and currently serve as our general counsel team. My siblings, Rob and Becky, have followed my mom’s lead and have held numerous roles in the business, filling in wherever we needed help.
How do you balance work and life? Any tips/tricks?
Balancing life and work has been very intentional for me from day one, especially since my life has been complicated by several health and autoimmune issues. Having autoimmune conditions requires a careful balance because of the many factors that can contribute negatively to my health. I knew going into this business that it might be difficult to manage my health and stress levels, but it has been possible because of my family and extended Siete familia. Because of their commitment to growing the business, I get to be in a role that I love and allows me to have a huge impact. This in itself is fulfilling and helps me to manage stress and my overall work/life balance. When you are part of a family business, it is difficult to turn work off. But, when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.
What has it been like having a private equity partner for growth? What have you learned from it?
We deliberately waited to entertain the idea of working with a private equity group until we were in a position where we didn’t need to. Financially, we were in a good position, but we had big plans to grow our brand and felt that Stripes could help us do so quickly. Having Stripes Group as our partner has been great, especially because it feels like they are just part of the extended Siete familia. That would be the biggest lesson I take from the experience…it’s important to work with people you love, trust, and can feel like family. That goes for every employee or business partner!
Describe a typical Friday night for you (pre and post-Covid!)
Pre quarantine, Friday nights involved finishing work and lingering around the office to hang out with some of the Siete team. Then I’d often watch a movie at the theatre with my husband (then fiancé)/family/friends while enjoying a glass of wine and a delicious gluten free meal. The movie theatre is the one place where I can totally unwind and literally disconnect since texting or using a bright screen is such a faux pas. My Fridays now consist of streaming a movie from home while snuggling on the couch with my dog and husband, while snacking on a homemade gluten free pizza and Siete chips.
Last meal on earth, what do you eat:
Pizza and Chick-fil-A sandwich. I haven’t had a chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A in over 10 years because of my gluten allergy.
It’s important to work with people you love, trust, and can feel like family. That goes for every employee or business partner!
What are you listening to, reading, or watching these days:
I think I’ve started 3 books in the last few months, but couldn’t focus on getting too far into them. I’ve been a bit of a TV junkie since quarantine started, so the list of what I’m watching is long. Like with the books, I start lots of tv shows and don’t finish them or take months to do so. The last shows I binged were Bridgerton and the Night Stalker. I’d say I’m pretty eclectic with my taste in TV and movies.
Favorite weekend indulgence:
Dairy free ice cream and pizza!! (sensing a trend here?)
The first trip you’ll take for leisure in 2021:
I prefer to make plans for last minute trips, so I couldn’t tell you until the time comes, because I don’t know.