KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
Roberto Sanchez grew up in Nayarit, Mexico, a part of Mexico bordered by the states of Sinaloa to the northwest and Jalisco to the south. Its western border is some of the most beautiful coastline of Mexico and to the east is some of the most productive agriculture of the country. Known for its coffee, maize, and chiles, it must have been hard for young Roberto to not be aware of the productivity of the land and the way it impacted his family table.
But though the agriculture was bountiful, the economic opportunities weren’t. In the early 1900s, he left his family and headed north. He was a young man with a vision, and his eyes were set on starting a business in San Francisco. He strapped a 20-pound wrought iron tortilla press to his back, and carried in his heart the love and the family traditions and meals that had nourished him as a boy.
Nearly 2,000 miles later, he arrived in San Francisco and in 1923, he and his new wife Isabella opened R. Sanchez and Co. in San Francisco's Fillmore District, a hot spot for jazz and bebop. They started selling enchiladas, tamales, and tortillas by the pound. By the 1950s the business was doing well enough to open the first mechanized tortilla factory in Northern California. Suddenly, the Sanchez family business was gaining steam.
But by the 1960s, the family noticed that more and more of their Latino customers were leaving the Fillmore District and moving to the city’s Mission District. The Sanchez family followed and a few years later, cut the ribbon at a new 24th Street factory, in the heart of the city’s burgeoning Latino community. For good measure, these restless entrepreneurs opened Casa Sanchez, a Mexican restaurant that became a hub of activity and a neighborhood institution. The whole community gathered there to catch up over Isabella and her daughter’s famous meals.
The tortilla business was taking off, and in addition to their many wholesale accounts, Taco Bell and Chevy’s were now customers. But in the 1980s, things began to change. Taco Bell started making their own tortillas to save money, and Chevy’s followed suit. It was time for the Sanchez family to adapt again.
Like so many family businesses that last generations, they innovated. In this case, the answer was right in front of them. Isabella and Roberto had brought with them from Mexico their love of chiles. They’d made salsa for the restaurant from the heart, and everyone loved it. It reminded them of home. The authentic taste of Mexico, bursting with the flavors of ripe tomatoes and chiles. When the kids worked a shift, they’d complain about constantly refilling the salsa at every table. That was all the market research they needed.
Casa Sanchez’s Mild Salsa Roja followed. It was a pioneering product, nearly the first of its kind, offering customers something they’d never seen before. Fresh salsa, a bright and flavorful alternative to the jarred salsas that sat on grocery shelves for months. Salsa slowly supplemented, and eventually outgrew, the tortilla business, and with it they suddenly had a new use for their tortillas. They took their excess capacity and launched a line of tortilla chips. The timing was perfect, as a new generation of Sanchezes was growing up in the business, just in time to handle the increasing load.
I'd use my mom's minivan to go and deliver the product,” says Robert Aranda, a fourth generation Sanchez family member, who now is the CEO. Aranda remembers learning on the job, being taught as a young boy that success only followed hard work. “I'd get up every day at five in the morning to help my grandmother, learning the business by watching her.
These days, Aranda is teaching the same lessons to his family, encouraging his son to learn the business by working there every summer. This approach of keeping things in the family means the Sanchezes can thrive independently in a world where food is more and more consolidated. It has also allowed them to pass on the values they hold dear, and that has served the family, their business, and their products well over the years.
They’ve also been able to pass on the family’s secret recipes by word of mouth. Their famous salsa is a complex mix of ingredients and chiles that are passed down from parent to child, never written down so they preserve the family legacy.
Love, and love of family, have been the guiding force for Casa Sanchez. Walk into their facility today, and the walls are covered with family photos. The message is clear: family first. And as the next generation of Sanchezes begins to shoulder the growing responsibilities of their booming business, they are honoring their forebears and laying the foundations for the future of their family and the communities they serve.
Roberto and Isabella’s extended family help remind us of the importance of continuity and values. And Casa Sanchez serves as an example of the importance of independent businesses and the role they play in nourishing our communities, providing jobs, and feeding us well along the way.
To learn more, visit casasanchezsf.com.