When it comes to salsa, where it’s made counts. So when it is cooked up in San Antonio by a South Texas native using his abuelita’s time-tested recipe and traditional Tex-Mex flavors, that is a formula for success.
Tio Pelon’s Salsita, made in a former cigar factory on the West Side, is the product of Oscar Perez’s backyard garden, entrepreneurial DNA, and a drive for personal fulfillment.
What began as an experiment in Perez’s apartment kitchen led to a request for his grandmother’s secret salsa recipe. Three years later, the company is a full-size commercial operation shipping to 300 stores, all from a city where Pace Picante originated in 1947, eventually topping ketchup as the nation’s favorite condiment.
Perez grew up in McAllen and worked for 10 years as an architect in San Antonio before looking to his homegrown vegetables as a way to start his own business. He began with pickled okra and celery.
“As an architect you always want to create,” he said. “You always want to have innovation. Entrepreneurship has been part of my life pretty much since I was a kid. My dad’s a business owner.”
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Perez embarked on earning a masters of business administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio and, being his grandmother’s “favorite,” he said, asked confidently for the authentic salsa recipe he had grown up on. Her directions were imprecise.
“The only ‘amount’ she gave me was the red peppers … grab this amount of red peppers and put them in there and throw a handful of salt, throw a handful of oregano, and this and that,” he said.
Perez began selling his version to friends and family via Facebook, then took the product to vendor markets. He began to get requests for more.
About that time, he became an uncle, a tio, and picked up the nickname Tio Pelon, Spanish for bald. While the hair on the top of Perez’s head stopped growing, his business began to take off.
In 2017, his Salsita Emma, the original salsa named for his grandmother, was offered in-store for the first time at The Larder at Hotel Emma. By 2018, Tio Pelon’s was being sold in 70 boutique grocery stores.
The brand grew to include four other products – Salsita de Tomatillo, Salsita Cremosa, Salsita Especial, and a Chipotle Infused Sweet Vinegar sauce.
That’s when Perez knew it was time to move to a commercial-grade kitchen. He found what he needed on South Flores Street in the former Alchemy restaurant kitchen, owned by the makers of Element Kombucha.
“It was a risk because I was at the time still a very small enterprise … but I needed to take that risk to go to the next step,” Perez said.
He then took another leap by entering the H-E-B Quest For Texas Best contest in 2018 and competing against 700 other entries – more than half of them salsas – for a space on H-E-B grocery shelves. Tio Pelon’s did not win, but made it into the top 25, Perez said, the only salsa in the group.
While you can’t find Tio Pelon’s at H-E-B yet, the jars of salsa are stocked at the grocery company’s Central Market stores across the state as well as at Albertsons, Whole Foods, Tom Thumb, United Supermarkets, and Randalls.
“[H-E-B] is one of the stores we want to get into for sure, and they see potential in us,” said Beto Altamirano, who is a “sweat equity” partner in the business and working with Perez to attract investors. The tech entrepreneur is a native of the Rio Grande Valley and the two had many friends in common before they met and started working together.
A drawing of Perez’s face appears on the labels, a creation by an artist friend, Ashley Mahaney. Perez designed the unique font used on the label. There’s also a heat-o-meter ranking of 1 to 10 jalapenos on each jar – a warning to be taken seriously.
“These are all pure jalapeno salsas so one of the things that distinguishes us from other products in the market is that most of the products that you see out there are tomato-based and these are jalapeno-based,” Perez said. To bring the heat, he purchases 4 tons of peppers a month.
Perez no longer cultivates the vegetables himself. He moved manufacturing into a 2,000-square-foot factory off of South Alamo Street, and shares the building, which once belonged to the San Antonio-based Finck Cigar Company, with the producers of Element Kombucha, a fizzy sweet-and-sour drink made with tea.
“There’s so much San Antonio history in this building. A lot of people have walked in these halls and now we’re producing salsa, made in San Antonio by San Antonians for everyone,” Perez said. “We share the space, but we also share knowledge. We’re both companies that are enterprising locally and want to represent San Antonio.”
Perez and Altamirano have worked together to scale the business and formalize an approach to get the product into more stores. “I’m also connecting him to investors locally and statewide, and … we are in a moment of aggressive growth,” Altamirano said.
Until recently, Tio Pelon production was a very labor-intensive process. It wasn’t quite at the molcajete level, but each jar was filled by hand and labels were affixed one jar at a time. Another sweat equity partner in the business is helping to change that.
Mechanical engineer Noe Molina, co-founder of Kilo Automation of San Antonio, is working with Perez to automate equipment used in manufacturing Tio Pelon salsas.
“Right now we’re in the process of actually building fully automated machines that are unique to our company,” Perez said. Already, technology is used to monitor and control the pressure in a boiler used to cook the peppers for Tio Pelon’s.
“Oscar’s vision on design will allow you to adopt innovative trends that can facilitate the development of the product,” Altamirano said. “We’re also thinking about using artificial intelligence to automate the way that sauce has been produced physically and then also how to market it online.”
For all those advances, the salsa is still made according to his grandmother’s recipe and is rooted on the West Side of San Antonio, and Perez doesn’t see that changing.
“That’s what a lot of people do … companies that you see on the shelves, they send their product to a manufacturing facility to get it packaged for them,” he said. “Our goal since the beginning, in order to maintain our good quality product, was always manufacturing in-house.”
Perez, who started the business with $20, expects to close the year with $250,000 in annual recurring revenues, but his goal is to be in 1,000 stores by next year and grow that number to half a million dollars.
His grandmother is pleased with his success so far, he said. “She’s really proud [but] I don’t think she realizes yet how many people have tried her salsa.”