Spreading the love of food

Miguel Leal says he was “destined” to work in the food industry. He’s an industry veteran who’s served as CMO and executive vice president with brands like Cholula, Kind Snacks, Diamond Foods, and more. He and his co-founders started SOMOS Foods with the mission to “share the best of Mexico with the world.” Somos products are plant-based, nutritionally dense, gluten-free, and can be used to create a meal in 10 minutes or less. 

Well, I've worked in CPG food, my entire career, and I think I was destined to work in this industry, my fascination with food, and specifically with CPG, uh, started when I was very young.

Miguel Leal

Transcription

Katie Hankinson: (00:00)

Welcome to Building While Flying a Sasha Group podcast, where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient and navigate ever-changing skies.

Maribel Lara: (00:12)

Hello, everyone. Welcome to Building While Flying my guest today is Miguel Leal, Co-Founder and CEO of SOMOS Foods. Miguel is a Mexican-American food industry veteran who comes to SOMOS following two years as the chief marketing officer at Cholula, he previously helped accelerate growth at Kind snacks, where he served as executive vice president marketing, and first linked up with SOMOS co-founders Daniel Lubetsky and RGO Suga. Miguel was previously at Danon and Diamond Foods working on the kettle brand. His food career began at PepsiCo’s Frito Lay managing the Lay’s potato chip category for nearly three years. Miguel moved to the United States to receive his MBA from the Wharton school at UPENN, born and raised in Monterey Mexico. Miguel’s favorite Mexican meal is home cooked Picadillo with rice and beans Rico. Miguel to building wild flying.

Miguel Leal: (01:14)

It is so awesome to see you again, and thank you for the opportunity to share a little bit more about SOMOS.

Maribel Lara: (01:21)

We’re so excited. So let’s start with, right, like, like let’s get, uh, everyone a little excited. What should they know about you personally? And what should they know to start about SOMOS foods?

Miguel Leal: (01:33)

Well, I’ve worked in CPG food, my entire career, and I think I was destined to work in this industry, my fascination with food, and specifically with CPG, uh, started when I was very young. So like you mentioned, I am from Monterey, but my family is from new lado, which is a border town on the Mexican side of Texas of the Texas border. And as a kid, we used to go and visit my family, my cousins, my uncles, my great grandma that lived there. And we would cross the border to shop in the us grocery stores. And they had so many products that we didn’t have in Mexico, anything from different kinds of cereals to peanut butter, that the NIST in Mexico to fish sticks. And I would spend hours there. Like my mom would have to like take me out of the store because I just love looking around and, you know, fast forward many years, like you mentioned, I worked for Pepsi and unknown, but, uh, in two, the nine I attended my first expo west, which is the natural food show and just fell in love with NA natural products worked for three of my favorite brands, uh, kettle chips kind bars and, um, uh, shul.

Miguel Leal: (03:02)

Yep. Uh, most recently. And, uh, yeah, I think, uh, uh, I was destined to be here and, and so happy to be part of this industry. Really the idea for some, if you don’t mind me introducing it a little bit. So my two co-founders Rodrigo and Daniel, the three of us met when we were working at kind, Daniel is kind’s founder. Rodrigo was the head of innovation and I was the head of marketing and we were three Mexicans living in New York, you know, were offices are three blocks from Europe offices. And we saw in the last 10 years, just how much Mexican food change in restaurants. It just, you know, I, I like to joke that Chi cheese became Chipotle and taco became tacos, noo, and just Mexican food became a lot healthier, delicious, and more like the food that we grew up with, but that changed the, then happen in the shelf, in the shelf. It was, you know, very little innovation and, uh, and we launched to solve some of that, you know, we’re products. We make rices beans, vegetable mattress, salsas, and chips. They come in brightly colored pouches and they can be mixed and matched to make, uh, we like to say, I make a delicious meal for four people in 10 minutes or less

Maribel Lara: (04:27)

Love it. Um, you teed us up really well for a bunch of questions that I had. Um, so the first is you’ve worked, you’ve incredibly impressive pedigree, right? In CPG packaged foods. I’m sure that amongst all of that experience, you’ve met a lot of like really savvy and intelligent individuals. What was it about this connection with you and your three co-founders right. And how did that, how long did that take from idea to inception?

Miguel Leal: (05:02)

No, that is a great question because Daniel RI and I are, it’s a different working relationship than the other working relationships that I have in, in a couple of ways. First of all, the three of us met as friends in, I wanna say 14 years ago, probably around 2008, 2009. We were three of the few Mexicans working in CPG food and people connected us mm-hmm . And, uh, we tried to launch a product together, a product that never made it to market. I was, uh, working at the known and, and Daniel and Rodrigo were launching kind kind was tiny, you know, maybe 20 employees at the time or less. And we were trying to do a, a yogurt from the nun with a granola from kind on the top. Okay. And, but even though we never, we could never do the product together. Uh, a friendship started and we would see each other at expo every year.

Miguel Leal: (06:11)

We would also see each other just in New York city, the three of us living here. And, um, and then when we decided to work together, eight years later, 18 to eight years into our friendship, that’s when we started to look at this opportunity, you know, just by being the three of us that I grew up in Monterey, Daniel grew up in Mexico city RGO grew up in Guadalajara. So from the three of us, we were able to see just this, you know, big gap in the market. And, and we felt a couple of things, Mario. One of them is that consumers deserve better that this category than in a lot of ways, represented at our culture, had very little innovation. And then the, the other piece that, that we thought was interesting is Mexican food is the number one ethnic food in the us. But the vast majority of the food over 80% comes from a restaurant because consumers don’t know where to start.

Miguel Leal: (07:16)

Like if you go to a bodega or if you go to a Hispanic aisle, uh, there is no one to three formula to take you into like a Mexican food, 1 0 1 into the kitchen. And that’s how a lot of people end up cooking text mix. So, you know, I think, I think like that was a big part of it. And, uh, and the other big part of it was we started the business during the pandemic and I feel a, it’s a lot easier to start a business in a pandemic. when you’ve been friends with people for 10 years. Right. and, and, and it’s also, you know, when you’re at home and you can go out and you can see friends, it was great for RGO who lives in GU Ajara to send those products to Daniel and I, so we can cook them at home. We can, you know, have a taste as with our family and with our friends. And the number one question everybody asked us was when are you getting another package from RGO? And that, that’s how we knew we had something that was addressing a need in the market.

Maribel Lara: (08:25)

I think that’s, um, I do a lot of cooking at home. And what you say is so true, right? When you make your first few recipes in any given genre of food, the first thing you have to purchase is a variety of spices. And like the, there’s an investment in that. And there’s a lot of work in learning how those spices work together. Um, and so it can be a challenge to take that first step into cooking, any type of cuisine that you’re not accustomed to cooking. So I definitely see how the product meets that challenge. Um, I’d love to talk a little bit more about, um, you, you mentioned expo west and sort of this exposure to natural foods. Um, you’ve talked about really wanting to do better by the consumer. Um, and I interpret better as, as healthier, right. Um, which I think is definitely part of it.

Maribel Lara: (09:17)

So for those that aren’t familiar, um, all of the products correct me if I’m wrong to date are plant-based okay. And, um, you’re also utilizing family recipes. And so I think there are a couple of things to talk about. There. One is the pressure of taking family recipes and bringing them to mass market. And two is plant-based, um, that’s, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of space to play in the natural food space, but you specifically went plant-based. So can you talk about that decision? Um, and also the pressure of using family recipes in, in these products?

Miguel Leal: (09:57)

Yeah. So I’ll, I’ll start with your first question, which is the, the plan based when we started talking about this business three or four years ago, plan based was not at the center of the idea, what was at the center of the idea was, uh, our mission is to share the best of Mexico with the world. And we thought a big misconception in the market that we wanted to fight was that Mexican food has to be heavy, has to be cheesy, has to be full of empty calories. When the reality is when we were growing up in Mexico, we ate a lot of vegetables. So we thought, you know, the most powerful way to introduce consumers to the brand, the first chapter of Somas should be he, that misconception head on. So we decided that our products should be plant based, gluten free, non GMO, but also they needed to be most importantly, delicious nutritionally dense, and only made with ingredients that you find in your pantry.

Miguel Leal: (11:17)

So that’s how we wanted to make sure that we would be representing the product and, and plan based was very strong on that. But it was also very strong on the innovation side that, you know, when, when people ask us, who is your competitor, do you compete with X or do you compete with Y there, there is really no analogy for these products, which is, which is fantastic. So to answer your second question, which is, you know, the, the pressure slash inspiration of bringing family recipes, uh, you know, it comes from all of us, but I think it particularly comes from RGO. RGO comes from a family of chefs and food scientists in Mexico. And a lot of these recipes have been past through generation. When I look at the landscape of food, especially in, in the grocery store, I see a lot of, uh, fluorescent yellow taco shes, and, you know, taco salad, balls and chimi Changa kids and things, you know, that I don’t find in Mexico. Right. I love to, I’m gonna go and see my mom this week. And I love to joke around that when I go to her house, she never asked me, do you want a heart taco or a soft taco? You know, like tacos are, are just tacos were, were where from, so, so that, that was, that was very important, you know, the, the health attribute, the plan base, and also the bringing the recipes from our family to, to, to make, to make them proud. Right.

Maribel Lara: (12:56)

Yeah. And for I’ve, I can give my testimonial of not being a solely plant based eater. I love my meat and I love my chicken, but these products are delicious. Um, and you don’t miss anything at all. So, yeah, everyone to try. And I say that from ha and, and Miguel did not give me product. I purchased my product. So this was not a per a paid advertisement.

Miguel Leal: (13:21)

Yeah. Well, you’re, you’re too kind. Thank you for the kind words.

Maribel Lara: (13:26)

You’re welcome. Okay. We have time for a couple more questions. Um, this, I found incredibly interesting. So when we, we talked to your team, um, preparing for today, um, you, you, they talked about the broader team and they talked about the development of an ownership mentality, and that being, um, really something that was characteristic of, of SOMOS, um, and had come from one of your co-founders, can you tell our listeners what that is and, and how that plays out?

Miguel Leal: (13:58)

Yeah, it’s something that Daniel started at kind, uh, and we’ve, you know, adopted it at SMOs and also made it our own. And I, I think, you know, the ownership culture is beautiful and a lot of people think that it relates to the ownership of the stocks. So every everything member at kind was, uh, owner in kind everything member and almost is an owner, but it goes farther than that. It is mostly the way that you think, and you approach the business when it is like you are writing checks of your own personal checkbook. Like any time that someone would be out of their trade rate or out of their sling budget or marketing budget, we would say, well, you wouldn’t do that with your own personal checking account. Right? So the way that it comes to life in almost is the tenacity into chasing new accounts. Like if it’s your own business, the negotiation of your vendor rate, but the most important thing. And I think the most beautiful is it doesn’t matter who is right, or who is wrong in a meeting. The only thing that matters is that we make the right decision to grow the SOMOS brand and the mission of the company. We’re all owners and we do whatever is best for SOMOS.

Maribel Lara: (15:26)

I love it. So, um, my second to last question is the name, how did you land on SOMOS and, and what does it mean for the company? I know what it means literally, but I would imagine there’s greater meaning behind it.

Miguel Leal: (15:42)

Yes. So SOMOS means quite literally. We are, you know, when we look at the space, we saw brands that were separating cultures, and we wanted to create a brand from scratch that would bring people together. We feel sometimes the quickest way through the heart is through the stomach. At least that’s what my mom told me when I was growing up

Maribel Lara: (16:12)

Mine too.

Miguel Leal: (16:14)

And, and, and, you know, Mexican food is much more popular than Mexican culture. So we try to bring the best of Mexico through the world through food. But in a lot of ways, we also try through culture through the art that we have on our packaging, our company, you know, we’re small, but half of our team members are from Mexican or Latin descent. Half of our dollars or more are spent with Mexican and Latino communities. And we, we believe that if we give great food and a little bit of culture, we can bring these two neighbor cultures closer together, one tackle, and one to start at a time,

Maribel Lara: (17:00)

Love it. So you are really still at the beginning of this journey. What else should we look forward to from SOMOS?

Miguel Leal: (17:10)

Yeah, right now we are obsessed with quality of the product. You know, the product keeps improving. We keep getting feedback from consumers and almost, you know, when you are working full, I’ve been doing this for many years. It has to be delicious, but it has to be delicious every single time. Mm-hmm . And as a young company, that is our obsession, uh, delicious food, uh, food quality, you know, all of that. When, when I think about the short term and the things that I’m excited about on the product side, we’re gonna be exploring different regions of Mexico. So food from the Yucatan peninsula is very different from Oaxaca is very different from the west. And I think culinary and storytelling, there is a great story to be told, uh, about the regions of Mexico there on our retail partners. On our current distribution, we are testing different ways to merchandise the food. Do you put the rices on the right side, the beans on the beans, or do you create that destination where people can come in and mix and match, and we’re getting, you know, great results on, on, on the second one. And as it comes to new products and new customers, we just got accepted into the target incubator program. So we are very excited about the opportunity to go through the program, get better as a company, but also the opportunity to partner with target in, in distribution and storytelling as well.

Maribel Lara: (18:46)

Makes me super excited. One of my favorite places to shop. So now I get to, now I get to pick up my SOMOS there as well. Um, Miguel, a pleasure having you on the show. Um, I, I will be watching and I wish you tremendous success with SOMOS.

Miguel Leal: (19:03)

Thank you very well and much.

Katie Hankinson: (19:16)

Thanks for joining us for building while flying today. I hope you learned as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here. Next time for another flight.

Welcome to Building While Flying!

This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.

In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild;  building the plane while flying.

Our pilots, Katie Hankinson and Mickey Cloud, will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.

Miguel’s destiny fulfilled

Miguel Leal says he was “destined” to work in the food industry. He’s an industry veteran who’s served as CMO and executive vice president with brands like Cholula, Kind Snacks, Diamond Foods, and more. He and his co-founders started SOMOS Foods with the mission to “share the best of Mexico with the world.” Somos products are plant-based, nutritionally dense, gluten-free, and can be used to create a meal in 10 minutes or less. 

In his conversation with Maribel Lara, Miguel shares how SOMOS Foods was born, and how family recipes play a role in their product development. He also discusses the “ownership mentality” they practice at SOMOS and how that impacts the culture they’re building. 

If you’re feeling hungry after this episode, you can browse and order SOMOS products directly from their website.

In-flight topics:

  • Breaking misconceptions in the food industry
  • Building a brand that’s true to heritage and culture
  • Innovation in the CPG food industry
  • Developing plant-based food products
  • The meaning of the name “SOMOS”
  • …and more!

Links | Connect with Miguel and SOMOS Foods:

SOMOS website: https://eatsomos.com/ 

SOMOS Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/eatsomos/ 

Miguel on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/miguelleal/

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