All in the Family
For Siete, the recipe for success is about more than entrepreneurial savvy
by Laurel Miller
Photographs by Warren Chang
I’M STANDING IN THE TURQUOISE-TILED test kitchen at Siete Family Foods in Northwest Austin shoveling tortilla chips into my mouth. This behavior is unusual only because the chips in question are grain-, gluten-, dairy-, and soy-free, as well as vegan, paleo, and non-GMO-verified. I’m omnivorous despite being lactose intolerant, and decades of living in places like Berkeley and Boulder have made me wary of foods created for those unfortunate enough to suffer from dietary restrictions and aversions.
Yet these chips (in sea salt, lime, and nacho flavors,) are crispy, nutty, and light as air, but also sturdy enough to resist salsa sog. Made with cassava (a starchy tuber native to the tropical Americas) and coconut flours and fried in avocado oil, they’re surely the crack of snack foods.
No less impressive are Siete’s tortillas (also free of grain, gluten, dairy, and soy), new line of hot sauces (enriched with chia and flaxseeds) and queso dip made from cashews. There’s an art to culinary R & D, and the co-founder and president of Siete Family Foods, Veronica “Vero” Garza, is clearly gifted in multiple mediums.
Garza launched the company in 2014 with her mother, Aida, and younger brother, Miguel. Today all seven members of the Garza family, including patriarch Roberto (“Bobby”); siblings Linda, Rob, and Becky; and sister-in-law Alexandra oversee every aspect of Siete. In just under five years, the Garzas have gone from running a family gym in Laredo (G7 Athletics) to establishing a burgeoning food empire in Austin.
For 37-year-old Garza, who has suffered from a variety of autoimmune disorders for more than two decades, Siete was born out of necessity. At 17, she was diagnosed with ITP, or idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a clotting disorder, which was treated with prednisone. Two years later, after experiencing fatigue, heart palpitations, and kidney issues, Garza was diagnosed with lupus nephritis, an often progressive disease that causes the body to attack its own tissues, resulting in joint pain and inflammation, skin rashes, and other debilitating symptoms. She also suffers from Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid.
While Garza’s doctors experimented with various medications, her brother Rob suggested making dietary changes. “He was into CrossFit and doing a lot of reading on the paleo diet,” she says. Medical research shows that a nutritional regimen free of grain (the gluten, or proteins, in wheat can trigger an inflammatory response in certain individuals) and rich in anti-inflammatory foods like nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens can help ease autoimmune symptoms.
In 2009, however, Garza wasn’t getting such advice from her doctors. She did her own research, and fortunately, her family rallied around her and as a group changed how they ate. It wasn’t a magic bullet (“It’s not like I changed my diet and was cured,” Garza says. “It’s about managing my symptoms”). But within a few months, Garza noticed her knee joints no longer “squeaked” during exercise and she had more energy.
Still, there were challenges. “My mom made grain-free dinners every night, which was hard for us,” she says. “Growing up in Laredo, we ate a lot of wheat flour–based food like tortillas at every meal. We tried various gluten-free flours and alternate foods, but wrapping carne asada in a lettuce leaf really wasn’t satisfying. I started playing around with almond flour and tapioca starch, trying to make a tortilla that tasted good but was also pliable enough to work.”
BUILDING A BETTER TORTILLA
Garza’s late grandmother Alicia Campos was known as much for her cooking as her vibrant spirit and love for her family. Aida took some of Garza’s tortillas to her mother, who loved them. Says Garza, “My mom videotaped her saying, ‘Vero, these tortillas are great. They’re better than mine.’ My grandmother was the most honest person, especially when it came to food. Just weeks before she died, she lovingly reminded my mom about how to keep her scrambled eggs from being runny.”
Bolstered by her abuela’s encouragement, Garza, who was teaching at a university in Laredo, began to seriously consider launching a grain-free food company. “I wanted to leave my job, but I didn’t have the guts. My mom was totally on board to do it with me, but it was Miguel, who has a law degree, who convinced us. He said, ‘If you don’t do it, you’ll regret it.’”
Garza began working with cassava flour after reading that it had a texture like that of wheat. She was less than impressed by the initial results. “The tortillas were bitter and fell apart,” she says. “I learned that that there are variables due to the type of cassava and processing methods.” Garza eventually found a cassava flour that tasted good and yielded the pliability and texture she required.
Today Siete sources its cassava from a mill in Brazil that’s supplied by regional family farms. Garza was able to visit last year and finds it gratifying to know that her company is helping to support the economy in an impoverished area.
Philanthropy, while not part of the original business plan, is now a hallmark of what Siete stands for. Says Garza, “We make heritage-inspired Mexican-American food, but we’re also a mission-based company, which is something that evolved along the way as we realized we could make an impact. We donate some product and a portion of all our proceeds to organizations like the Hispanic Impact Fund and Con Mi MADRE that benefit underserved communities.”
AUSTIN WAS LIKE A SECOND HOME TO US
The entire family, including Aida and Bobby, had attended UT, and Miguel was already living in Austin when Siete was in the development phase. The city was deemed the perfect place in which to base the business (there’s a production facility in addition to the North Austin office) because, according to Garza, “the community is into fitness and a healthy lifestyle, and I love that you can walk into any restaurant and ask for a gluten-free option. Also, Whole Foods is from here.”
In return, Austin has embraced Siete, which is carried in many retail outlets besides Whole Foods, including Wheatsville Co-op (Siete’s first account), Natural Grocers, and Fresh Plus. The company’s growth has been organic. It employs 20 people, in addition to family. The product line now includes four types of tortillas, in addition to those built from almond flour: cassava and coconut, cassava and chia, chickpea, and cashew flour. The new hot sauces (chipotle, traditional, jalapeño, and habanero) were a natural extension of the chips. “We like to make foods we love to eat with every meal,” says Garza, who retains a soft spot for the almond-flour tortillas, preferably filled with grilled beef tongue. She recommends heating them for 15 seconds per side first on a smoking-hot cast-iron skillet.
You might assume that after working together all week the Garzas would take a break from one another in their downtime, but you’d be wrong. “On Sundays, my family likes to get together and do a carne asada, and we do exercise and yoga together with our team at the office gym three times a week.”
When I ask Garza what her biggest challenge is regarding work, she says it’s managing stress, and spending time with her family and exercising are antidotes, as is maintaining a sense of humor (one example being the company website’s hilarious website copy, of which she notes, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously”). Siete’s success may best be explained, however, by something Garza and her siblings learned at an early age. “My grandmother always used to say, ‘Family first. Family second. Business third.’”
BEEF TONGUE BARBACOA TACOS
1 beef tongue (approximately 4 to 5 lbs)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 cup chopped white onion
Siete hot sauce (any flavor)
Rinse the beef tongue with water and place it in your slow cooker. Add garlic powder, salt, onion (reserve a few tablespoons), bay leaf. Add enough water to cover the beef tongue. Set the slow cooker on low, cover, and cook for 10 to 12 hours, or until tender.
Remove the beef tongue from the slow cooker. Remove the skin from the top and trim any fat from the bottom. Using two forks, shred the beef tongue (barbacoa) and place it in a serving dish. Strain the broth from the slow cooker and add some to the barbacoa in the dish.
Warm your favorite Siete tortilla. Fill each tortilla with a generous amount of the barbacoa. Add cilantro, remaining onion, lime, and your favorite Siete hot sauce to taste.
Serves about 6 people