Tapatío hot sauce maker Jose-Luis Saavedra has recipe for success

The gig: Founder and chief executive of Tapatío Foods, maker of the Mexican-style hot sauce. The company, established in 1971, is headquartered in Vernon and has 20 employees.

Home cooking: Saavedra, 82, began making batches of the hot sauce with his family at their home in Maywood in the late 1960s and shared it with co-workers during lunch at his job at a local aerospace manufacturer. The sauce became such a lunchtime hit that his co-workers encouraged him to sell it commercially, a notion he initially rejected.

Not-so-hot start: When he was laid off from his job in 1971, Saavedra decided to give the hot sauce business a shot. He began making and bottling the sauce by hand, bottle by bottle. He struggled to get the sauce in stores and would leave it on consignment at markets in East Los Angeles, to be paid only if it sold. He finally caught a break when a local Japanese-owned grocery store asked for 10 cases of 24 bottles each, a massive order at the time.

One by one: Even as sales began to rise, Saavedra continued to make the sauce — originally called Cuervo — and bottle it himself, even while working two part-time jobs. "Everything was done by hand," he said. "I'd remove the stem, grind the peppers, even applied the glue to the labels."

Larger orders became a challenge. One day a friend he hired had positive but stressful news. "He said to me, 'Compadre, I got you an order for 15 cases,' " Saavedra remembered. "I told him, 'Are you out of your mind? It will take me weeks to make it!' "

The company struggled, and Saavedra recalled how he was forced to eliminate half the workforce. "I fired the other guy," he said with a laugh. "I didn't have enough money to pay him, so I stayed by myself."

Heating up: After four years of using the Cuervo name, Saavedra sold the California distribution rights of the name to tequila company Jose Cuervo International Inc. and used the cash to buy some production equipment. In 1975, he changed the name to Tapatío, a nickname for a person from Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

That next year the largest food distributor in the West, Certified Grocers of California — now called Unified Western Grocers Inc. — placed its first order for 25 cases, beginning a relationship that would lead to other deals to take the brand nationwide. Last year Tapatío also inked a distribution deal with food processing giant Kraft Foods Inc., furthering the hot sauce maker's reach.

Saavedra won't reveal how much sauce Tapatío sells nor how much money it makes, but he marveled at the company's growth. "Can you imagine? All the work that I did in order to sell 1,700 cases in one year," he recalled. "And now it's done in one hour."

The answer is no: He's not the dapper, mustachioed, sombrero-wearing man on the label. The sketch is an artist's depiction of a true Tapatío, he said. The label is a way to "dignify the appearance of the charro," a traditional Mexican horseman and gentleman, which Saavedra said had been sullied by inaccurate stereotypes. The lighter skin and blue eyes also depict the common features of people who live in the highlands of Jalisco, he said.

Family business: Saavedra, born in Mexico City, serves as president and remains highly involved in the company, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. "I never want to be called a president or a CEO or whatever," he said. His son, Luis Saavedra, runs the day-to-day operations as vice president, and his two daughters, Dolores McCoy and Jacqueline Mora, also work there. All three were born in Guadalajara. "I'd always call them Tapatíos," he said.

He'll never tell: What's the Tapatío recipe for success? Saavedra won't say. Only members of his family are privy to the details of what goes into the salsa picante. "Over hundreds" of recipes were tried before he settled on the one. He said he experimented "continuously, continuously, until I came up with the formula."

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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