This article was originally published in The Hundreds Summer 2014 Magazine.
In preparation for our The Hundreds X Tapatío collaboration, Luis, Albie and I paid a visit to the Tapatío headquarters in Vernon, California. As we made our way through the front entrance, we were immediately greeted with the sharp scent of chile relleno and the warmth of a family who has been hustling through hardships since the early days of starting what we now know as Tapatío. We met with Luis Saavedra and Dolores McCoy–two of the company’s founder’s children, who are now leading the charge–and Roche McCoy, Tapatío’s lawyer and Dolores’s husband. This is the story of a family, first and foremost–a father’s grit and determination, the sheer stubbornness of belief in your brand, and the confidence to keep on keeping on until you create a legacy.
ALINA NGUYEN: So I read that your father had a day job, or several, when he started the company in ’71.
LUIS SAAVEDRA: My father started the company in 1971. Between my mom and my dad, they used to make this hot sauce and sell it at his place of work in Vernon... But when the company shut down, due to the recession and he really didn’t have another means of income. So my mom encouraged him to go out and sell the hot sauce. In order to do that, he opened up a small place in Maywood and had to have two part-time jobs to be able to pay for the rent. In the morning, he’d pick up his worker... and then he’d go to his first part-time job. Then during his break, he’d come back to the plant, see what he had done, then give him instructions to finish the bottles and label the bottles. Then he’d go to his second part-time job. Then he’d bring me and Dolores or Jackie–sometimes all three of us–to fill the remaining orders for the next day. So we’d finish our homework and go to the plant. Sometimes we’d fall asleep on the stainless steel tables. [laughs] That went on for about 4 years.
Bobby, Ben, and the Tapatio family.
So you’re the three children I read about that have been working with the family since ’85! And you guys had no experience prior to starting.
Luis: You know, well, since my dad started the company, he said he had all strikes against him. First of all, he was over forty when he started and he didn’t have a great knowledge of the English language. He had no business background. So those three factors were against him.
Why the name Tapatío? Is there a story behind that name?
Luis: When my father started the business, it was called Cuervo. Because on my mother’s side, there was a direct relation to the Jose Cuervo family. Dolores: She was a Cuervo.
Luis: And so, my father, when he started the company, he said, “It’s a family name, it’s a catchy name.” So probably two years into it, he got sued by Jose Cuervo! But the funny thing is, he had the state trademark here in California to sell Cuervo. So if Cuervo was to sell or advertise, they would be infringing on our trademark. So he had several meetings with them through an uncle. Basically he said, “Look. They need the name, we need the money to grow, so why not just buy out that name?” Cuervo said, “Okay, that’s fine. Let’s do that.” So we had that full year to make the slow transition to Tapatío. Now Tapatío presented its challenges because after he sold the “Cuervo” name, he needed a new name for our product... He went and bought 10,000 labels and he started selling the product as Charro. He got sued again! He went back and said, “You told me it wasn’t taken. I just printed 10,000 labels!” and [the State of California] said, “We have no record of that.” So you learn the hard way. Through hard lessons. He said, “Well, my three kids were born in Guadalajara and a person or something originating from Guadalajara is called Tapatío.” So he said, “I’ll name it Tapatío in honor of my kids.” Back then, there was nothing Tapatío. There were no Tapatío markets, no barbershops, no restaurants... he was the first one to come up with [and trademark] the name... then he got sued again. By Con Agra and Del Monte foods.
DOLORES: And Con Agra was huge. They were huge.
When was that?
Luis: That was in ’77 when he received the attorney’s letter. He said there were more attorneys on the letterhead than there were words on the page. [laughs] It’s a long story, but you know, my dad, he was so worried, he said, “What should I do?” And I said, “Let’s just fight it. If we feel confident that this is our name, we should just fight it, no matter what.” The basis [of the lawsuit] was that there was an existing product called Patio.
Luis: Con Agra and Del Monte Foods assumed that we just put the “TA” in front of “Patio” to ride on their company’s product. But our position was that even though there is a name that is incorporated in it, it can mean two different things, so there’s no cause for confusion. As a result of that, he set a precedent in the legal books.
ROCHE: It was a Supreme Court case, right? I mean it was nickels and dimes all the way. He couldn’t afford it against this huge company, but on principle alone, you know, he wasn’t gonna back down. The lawyer bills were phenomenal, but now there’s a case in the federal register.
All of you must have been so young at the time. Your father was just kind of going through all of this by himself?
Luis: Exactly. And you know, the grit and the determination behind him is truly amazing. He will not take no for an answer. If he can’t achieve it this way, he’ll go around, he’ll go up or down... to find a way in which to achieve it.
Dolores: As a woman, I used to see my dad and he used to do these two jobs. His biggest worry was, “How am I gonna feed my family?”
Luis: “How am I gonna put my kids through school?”
Dolores: I mean, he couldn’t afford it, but he put all of us through private school. He used to take us to school everyday and make sure we were picked up, make sure there was food on the table. Working, working, working. He was a very strict father, but man, he did it ALL. He raised us, he put food on the table. We didn’t have much. It was always, “Can I go here?” “No, we can’t afford it.” “Can I go there?” “No, we can’t afford it.” The big joke was, “If you guys are good, I’ll take you guys to go see people eating ice cream.” [laughs]
Roche: And their cousins were all rich.
Luis: When they’d visit Los Angeles they would go to Disneyland take us too.
Dolores: We got to go once.
You’re talking about your mom’s side. The CUERVO SIDE!
Luis: [Laughs] I grew up with [my dad] and I was involved in all these early challenges. When my dad would come home, we’d never feel it. We never felt his stress, his anxiety, his tears. We just felt like “normal dad”... we’d eat dinner together and watch TV. He never made us worry.
Roche: I can tell you from a company lawyer perspective, when it comes to legal issues, I guess as a result of that early battle–he schooled me on trademark law. If he’s right, he’s right. He’s been right every single time. We had a couple legal battles that went into six figures.
Dolores: He’s a cool dude!
And then all three of you joined the company about 10 years later in ’85? Luis, you studied medicine in Mexico, Dolores studied law, and Jackie studied finances and accounting. How has it been working together? Dolores: Yes. Now we have our kids working here. Everybody’s like, “HOW do you work with your brother, your father?!” And it’s weird because we’ve talked to lawyers who have these cases where these families are at each other’s throats. They ask how we do it. We just do. This is what we know. We grew up together. When I met Roche in law school, I remember he said, “Oh, you guys all work together? That’s so weird.” So one Friday he comes over, he says, “What are we doing?” I said, “Getting together with my family.” He said, “What are we doing tomorrow?” “Getting together with my family. We’re going to dinner.” He said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You work together–you see each other on the weekends, too? You guys are CRAZY.” It’s family. That’s what it’s about.
Roche: Even with this The Hundreds thing, or anything we do. Everyone comes in and everybody’s view is heard and if one person disagrees, we figure out how to overcome that. Everything is handled with the family. It’s never just one person saying, “I’m doing this.”
Working with The Hundreds is totally different than the collaborations you guys have done before in the food space. What’s the most exciting part about expanding with something like this?
Luis: Personally, I’ve always been a believer that–anything that makes other people happy–let’s do it. If it can create a stir, create excitement, enhance the palette–let’s do it. Let’s create that buzz. The primary thing is you work with great people such as you guys. When you meet great people that think out of the box. We’re always honored when big companies and companies such as yours approach us. It makes us so happy that, hey, people have accepted our product, what we’ve worked for.
Dolores: I think it’s exciting! I think it’s awesome. I think it’s now. It makes me relate to my kids. The way you guys attack social media–we’re old school. This has been an eye-opener for us. It’s fun. It’s just The Hundreds, It’s that label I see on kids everywhere I go. And these kids like Tapatío. So it’s like a good marriage. It’s a good relationship. It’s like what Luis said. As a family, we feel really honored, because this is like our kid. Our baby. We’ve grown up with it. We’ve nurtured it.
Albie: Thank god for your son, Roche II. [Patrick came up with the idea, and one day] Mac and I were having lunch and we were just down the street sitting there and saying, man, we gotta do this. Let’s just go over there [to Tapatío] right now. They’re gonna kick us out, but who cares.
Dolores: I love it! I love it.
Albie: The receptionist kind of looked at us like, “You’re with WHO?” And we were like we’re outta here, man, pack your bags. And then Roche came out and said, “We’ll take your meeting.” And we said, “WHAT?” So cool. And it was because of Dolores’s son who was familiar with The Hundreds.
Dolores: He freaked out.
Roche: The receptionist came down, she said, there’s someone from, like, The Hundreds. My son said, “WHAT? Oh my god!” And then we realized that was the store we had went to in New York.
Dolores: He dragged us all over New York.
Roche: We didn’t understand why it was so important for him to find this store. Of all the places in a city like New York. But he was like, “They own the world!” So off we went.
It really is such an honor to work with you guys.
Dolores: Same here. It’s awesome.
Albie: We’re excited!
We have a great plan ahead. Is there anything else you guys want to say?
You know, if I can look at the company as a whole, I would say the first phase is all just trying to make ends meet, trying to provide a living. According to my dad’s philosophy: Let’s get these kids to school. Let’s put these kids in private school. I need to pay off my mortgage. I need to make a living. That’s the philosophy. The second part when we came in, it’s more like, ok, let’s grow the company. We’ve reached this, now let’s expand it. I want to make sure Tapatío is on every table. Not just every person’s house, but also every restaurant–that it’s available to them. And I know we have competition, but that’s my dream.
Left: Dolores, Middle: Jose-Luis Saavedra, Sr., Right: Luis Saavedra, Jr.