How Chef Sarah Zubiate Of ZUBI’S Is Helping To Promote Healthy Eating
How Chef Sarah Zubiate Of ZUBI’S Is Helping To Promote Healthy Eating
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Never underestimate the challenges that come your way. The only way to overcome them is to be flexible.
Inthis interview series, called “Chefs and Restaurateurs Helping To Promote Healthy Eating” we are talking to chefs and restaurateurs who are helping to promote and raise awareness about healthy eating. The purpose of the series is to amplify their message and share insights about healthy eating with our readers. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sarah Zubiate, Founder and CEO of ZUBI’S.
Sarah Zubiate is the Founder and CEO of ZUBI’S, a plant-based Latin food company providing healthy alternatives to traditional Latin favorites. Zubiate created her signature salsa based on her mother’s 60-year-old recipe, and after its resounding success among her family and friends, she launched ZUBI’S into retailers in 2017. In just four years, she has expanded ZUBI’S offerings to include plant-based, certified organic crema and queso alongside her salsa. In 2020, Sarah brought all ZUBI’S manufacturing and production in-house with the construction of ZUBI Farms, a zero-waste, certified organic, sustainable facility based in Athens, Texas. Today, all products are sold in retail stores across more than 25 states, including Amazon and Sprouts, as well as Texas-based locations for Whole Foods and Central Market. As a proponent of healthy cooking, Sarah has been recognized as a featured American Heart Association chef, and she regularly shares her customized dishes on regional cooking segments.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
There are so many stories. I actually started out in finance, but always had a strong passion for food and healthy eating. In 2013, I left finance and began to explore the idea of creating healthy Latin food products and selling them. I had grown up enjoying my mother’s Latin recipes and they were tied to so many fond memories — from big family gatherings to quiet nights at home. I knew that anything I did with food needed to honor that legacy. I started with my mom’s salsa recipe, but putting my own personal touches on it to make it healthier and bring in more ingredients that are good for the digestive system. It wasn’t long before the concept of ZUBI’S was born, and by 2017, the company had launched three healthy Latin products — farm-fresh salsa, as well as dairy-free crema de jalapeño and queso — into retail stores.
My inspiration stems from my family and the food we enjoyed in my childhood. There are so many stories I could share, but one of the more poignant memories revolves around how our family’s food was a comfort to me:
I was on our city’s cheerleading team, and we participated annually in the area’s big cheer competition. One year, we lost after being undefeated for the previous three years in a row. I was understandably devastated. When my mom and I got home, she immediately went to get me something to eat, and I requested chips, her salsa and her crema. It was exactly what I needed. I remember sitting at our kitchen table with my mom, my cousins and my aunt, just talking, laughing and crying as they made me feel better.
That memory is so special to me because it involves my loved ones and good conversation revolving around good food. Those staples were always abundant — in good times and bad. As I created ZUBI’S, I knew I wanted to provide healthier versions of those staples to keep that legacy alive, providing delicious food for people to enjoy no matter what they’re going through. Now I love to share not only the products, but recipes that inspire new generations of those who love to cook.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I focus on creating healthy alternatives to Latin staples — foods like salsa, crema and queso. As a Mexican-American woman, the healthy alternatives I create are an homage to my heritage and the memories of my childhood. So many of my memories revolve around food, and in my home, that meant dishes like my mother’s 60-year-old salsa recipe.
When I began cooking for myself, I was immediately drawn to the type of food I’d grown up with. I wanted to share the food I love in a healthy way, so everyone could eat it regardless of their dietary lifestyle or restrictions. My mother’s salsa — the basis for ZUBI’S salsa — has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I always say I don’t really have a first memory of tasting it, since it’s always been there. I’ve been helping make the salsa since I was a small child, and it was a natural place to start when it came to my own Latin-based line.
I’ve made ZUBI’S salsa countless times in my life, but I always look back fondly on memories of helping my mother make her recipe. In one of the earliest memories I have, I remember helping my mom by chopping onions. I was maybe eight or nine years old, and I was crying while chopping onions. (Funny, but even to this day, I am a horrible crier with onions!) I remember thinking, “It doesn’t burn when I eat it! Why is it burning now?” When we had the salsa for dinner, I was still so frustrated, especially since the onions didn’t burn my eyes when we ate. It’s a funny, sweet memory for me — and one I think about often when my own children help me in the kitchen.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that has happened to you since you started? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
There are many! The journey to start ZUBI’S is full of ups and downs — as with any entrepreneur’s story. However, the most impactful moment happened near the beginning of our company’s launch, and it was truly a valuable lesson in determination and the grit that’s so necessary for entrepreneurs.
Several years ago, we were preparing ZUBI’S products to attend an enormous food expo event in California. That early in our journey, we were still exploring options for having a third party help make the product in large amounts — and the partner we had chosen had not gotten the recipe right. Two nights before we left, my team and I realized we would all have to pitch in and work through the night to make enough new product to take to the expo.
I remember sitting on the kitchen floor at 2 a.m., looking at all the ingredients and materials we had to put together. It was an emotional roller coaster — I would cry, then just laugh (because what else can you do?). That moment, the “grit” aspect of entrepreneurship really sunk in. A moment like that would make so many people throw in the towel, right there on the kitchen floor, and walk away. But I didn’t.
I think I experienced every type of emotion in those moments. It’s almost funny — I would make an entire batch, then tell my team, “I have to take a moment.” I’d step away, lose it for a few minutes, then gather myself and come back to make another batch. It was tough. But we made it happen, and we made the flight to California. Even better, we landed several big accounts after that expo. But those nights before the event, those memories of crying and laughing right there along with my team, have stayed with me.
People have such a different image of success and entrepreneurship than the reality. I used to. When I first dreamed of ZUBI’S and the entrepreneurial journey, I never would have painted that picture of myself, upset and making salsa at 2 a.m. on the kitchen floor. That’s not the kind of moment you envision when you think of starting a company. But today, even when people compliment our company and how far we’ve come, that memory is one of the first thing that pops into my brain. I remember where we were, how far we’ve come, and the incredible journey that has brought us here.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Absolutely. There are so many, but I can narrow it down to two.
The first mentor is a man I met at the Natural Products Expo in California: Richard Riccardi. He’s highly successful, both in and out of the food industry, from working as an attorney to running a successful food manufacturing facility in Dallas. Today, he runs the Dallas Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) community.
When we met at the Natural Products Expo, I remember he preferred to get to know the people behind the company, rather than just tasting the food. He and I spoke around a little table beside the ZUBI’S booth, connecting over both being from Dallas. Before he left, I told him, “I don’t want you to leave this table until we schedule something back in Dallas.” I knew even then that Dallas is an incredible city for the food industry, and this was a man who could work alongside companies like ZUBI’S to bring Dallas to the forefront.
He laughed, told me he had no doubt I’d be successful in my life, and scheduled the meeting. Today, he’s a long-time friend and a true mentor. I look to him when I’m uncertain or in a tight spot, and he has incredible advice to offer (even if he does joke about me holding him hostage when we first met!).
I also wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my husband. He is also a highly successful businessman, and he has offered great advice and encouragement. Recently, I was talking to him at home about my frustrations of rising costs in the supply chain and shipping, which have been extremely difficult for our small business. The self-doubt was overwhelming, and at one point, I shared that I felt really silly and embarrassed, worrying about these problems for such a small business. He came over to me and just held me, reminding me that he has faith in my ability to overcome these challenges. His words stayed with me: “I am so proud of you. If there’s anyone who is going to blaze through these challenges, it’s you. You’re doing an incredible job. And after all of your efforts, you’re making sure the people who come after you can stand on your shoulders to continue growing this company.” That was a special moment because while he’s my husband, he’s also a businessman I admire.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
It comes down to the full experience. I know this is pretty basic, and quite a few chefs and restauranteurs will tell you that, but it’s true. Everything sensory — how a dish smells, what it looks like and how it tastes — all these things together can make an incredible dish. Satisfying the palate is the most important part. After all, no one is going to come back or buy more if a dish doesn’t taste good.
Of course, there’s also another element beyond the sensory aspect now. People go through a big screening process before they even try a dish. They ask, “Can I eat this? Is it allergen-free? Is it better for you? How is it manufactured?” You have to go through this rigorous questioning, then you have to have a dish or product that still looks, smells and tastes good to satisfy the palate.
Food is such a personal thing, and understanding your audience can play a huge role in making a product people are crazy about. I have really made sure to pay attention to this feedback — it’s actually part of why we started selling ZUBI’S at the Dallas Farmer’s Market before going anywhere else. I was able to share the product and listen to feedback on the ground. Even today, before we launch a new product, I want to get a good amount of feedback to make sure we’re passing both the customer’s personal food screening and the taste test.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal’ for you?
First and foremost, it all depends on the food. I love all genres of food, and am probably one of the least picky eaters I know. I’ll try whatever dish you put in front of me, and there’s a high chance I’ll love it!
But my team knows me for one meal that I enjoy more than anything else, especially on the go. They call it “chipita,” as a running joke. It’s a mixture of salsa, lime juice and chips. I crunch the chips up, shove them into a cup, top them with ZUBI’S salsa and lime juice and eat it almost like a cereal. I know that’s not the most glamorous — but it’s delicious, healthy and particularly great when I’m on the run. As the CEO and Founder of ZUBI’S, I’m always on the go, and this is a truly perfect meal for me.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
I travel quite a bit, which brings me so much inspiration. As whacky as it is, I take pictures of menus everywhere I go and use that as inspiration when I’m looking at new recipes or products to explore.
I also make time to enjoy my hobby, interior design. Every day, I read about interior design, places and travel to transport myself to a different place. In interior design, I’m constantly pulling from this repertoire of places and memories to create an experience for people. I always ask myself, “What do I want people to feel while they’re here?” It’s the same thing with my food, and that’s why I have such a variety of recipes. In just a single bite, people can be transported to other places and experience a completely different culture.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Yes! We have lots of new, exciting opportunities coming our way. As a CPG company, ZUBI’S is always looking for ways to help people eat better while still enjoying a delicious product. Today, we’re expanding into wholesale and private label opportunities. I’m very excited — the partner we’re working with has a fabulous team and mission behind the company. Of course, this growth will eventually require more space, machinery and manpower, so I’m looking into how we can continue to expand our team and capabilities to better serve our partners.
We are also looking at how our own brand can expand. Latin staples don’t stop at queso or salsa — there are countless opportunities for us to provide healthy alternatives to other beloved dishes. I’m looking forward to exploring new product ideas to launch over the coming months and years. Between new products and expanding into wholesale, our company has an incredible upwards trajectory, and I’m excited to see what the future brings.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an initiative to help promote healthy eating. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Absolutely. At ZUBI’S, our goal is to provide delicious healthy alternatives to beloved Latin favorites in a transparent, clean way that does not harm the environment. ZUBI’S products are for everyone, regardless of their lifestyle or dietary restrictions. In addition to being healthy and wholesome for consumption, we also want to make these products in a sustainable, clear way. Each product is made with farm-fresh, organic ingredients, many of which are grown right on our sustainable, organic-certified farm in Athens, Texas.
When it comes to food, I want the norm to be ‘clean’ with ingredients that are not processed, like the food our ancestors enjoyed. Right now, the processes that companies use to make our food are generally not very openly transparent. People can fudge all kinds of information on labels, and the consumer isn’t necessarily well-versed in understanding the different processed foods and how they affect the human body. So, by maintaining transparency and cleanliness in ZUBI’S products and throughout our processes, I want to change that norm.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I’ve always been passionate about healthy eating habits and providing healthy alternatives to my favorite dishes. I love the concept of fueling our bodies using natural foods, created with sustainable, transparent practices. However, I’ve realized that it’s difficult to understand everything that goes in your food, as well as how certain eating habits can affect your body as you get older. In my own way, I want to do my part to help provide more transparency in the food industry.
In fact, a large part of my inspiration comes from my parents, who are facing several medical issues now that they are older. As these issues came up, I wanted to provide food that still had the taste they had enjoyed their entire lives, without the negative impact on their health. I wanted to make products that were more nutrient-rich, filled with vegetables that still had that bold flavor of traditional Latin dishes. It’s a win-win for everyone: I get to provide healthier alternatives for my parents, and they get to enjoy familiar, delicious food.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was helped by your cause?
Truth be told, there are so many. We often get messages from people who have had horrible allergies or dietary restrictions for years and haven’t had queso for years. They try our queso (which is free of all the Top 8 Allergens like dairy or nuts), and they are able to enjoy a dish they haven’t had in years.
Those messages are mind-blowing, especially those who have strong allergies. I’m so happy to help them. It means we’ve made a dish that not only appeals to people who live a certain lifestyle by choice; we can also help those who have medical conditions that might prevent them from enjoying Latin staples.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Transparency in the food industry is an enormous initiative. Of course, society can change their purchasing habits to look for alternatives that are sustainably sourced and all-natural. However, I understand this is very difficult if people don’t have access or if the products aren’t affordable. For those who can, I would suggest looking for those alternatives to processed foods. Familiarize yourself with what’s on the label and how it affects your body. It’s not always possible — when you eat out, for example, you may not always eat fully organic food. But every little step can make a difference.
On the supply side of things, it’s so important for manufacturers to consider how they’re creating the foods they sell. I challenge manufacturers to review their processes and ask if they are as clean and transparent as possible — and be bold enough to make changes if you need to.
I’ve also been thinking of nonprofit work and lobbying recently. On the political landscape, lobbyists have the ability to push for more transparency in the industry. We need someone to hold industry players accountable. For example, 90% of our country’s garlic comes in from China — and it has to stay ready-to-eat for months or even years. Imagine what additives are included to make that food last. Lobbyists have the ability to push for greater clarity on the ingredients that are being used in our products — or even prohibiting them from being used in the first place.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Chef or Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
There’s so much to consider when you’re starting out. However, there are five pieces of advice I wish someone had told me. They come from my experience — my failures and successes — and sometimes these lessons were hard to learn. However, I hope that by sharing them, I can help prevent someone else from making the same mistakes I did:
- General industry knowledge will never replace experience. Get the experience from someone else in the industry before launching the company.
- Always remember what is special about you. Write it down, and reference that list in hard times when you need encouragement.
- Never stop asking questions.
- Never underestimate the challenges that come your way. The only way to overcome them is to be flexible.
- Always do your own research and be prepared.
General industry knowledge will never replace experience. Get industry experience before launching your company. This is my number one piece of advice, and it comes from my failures. I have had this passion for health and wellness my entire life, but I didn’t go intern with a food brand or manufacturer before I launched ZUBI’S. That type of experience is everything. When I launched ZUBI’S, I thought I was prepared and had done more than enough research. I mapped out every type of business projection, costs, trends in the marketplace — everything. I had interviewed dozens of people in the industry and thought I understood the processes and systems necessary to launch a food company.
But I learned that while it’s great that I did my homework, it wasn’t the same as living through the industry. There were huge hurdles in the beginning where I wished I’d had some experience to understand how to overcome them. I would suggest that if the food industry is your dream, take the time to get some experience with someone who’s done it, before going off on your own.
Always remember what you think is most special about yourself. We hit really bad lows as entrepreneurs — I would say more than any other profession I’ve experienced. The self-doubt that happens when someone is starting their own company is so strong because it’s all on you. Personally, I’ve hit rock bottom so many times, and it’s so hard to come back from it.
Something I’ve done now, which I wish I’d done earlier, is create my own personal affirmation moment. I’ve written down what people throughout my life have said makes me unique and different, and I encourage other entrepreneurs to do the same. Then, when you are at your low, pull out that piece of paper or Google Doc or whatever it is, and read it aloud.
This strategy has helped me so much, from facing COVID-19 to dealing with the rising supply chain costs. There were times I thought about selling the company and moving onto something else. But I dug deep, and that physical affirmations list played a huge role in my decision to keep going. I’d read each item aloud and think, “We can do this.”
Never stop asking questions. It is so important to dig deep and understand every aspect of your company as you grow. You may be surrounded by industry professionals who are experts in their particular area — like manufacturing or marketing — but you need to be adequately informed about the different elements that are affecting your company and your team. Stay respectful, of course, but continue asking questions and digging into anything you don’t understand.
At ZUBI’S, the reason we were able to start our own manufacturing facility is because I peppered my last manufacturer with questions. I kept asking how different processes were possible or how they managed their electrical set-up. In fact, those questions led me to uncover that the manufacturer’s processes weren’t actually working for our product — and by then, I’d gained enough knowledge to feel confident starting our own manufacturing facility. Today, we have a fully sustainable, zero-waste farm where our primary products are grown, and each of our products is made and packaged.
Never underestimate the challenges that come your way. Stay flexible to overcome unforeseen obstacles. When it comes to entrepreneurship, you might read and hear that the process is difficult. But, you’ll never truly understand what that means until you’re in the middle of it. Earlier, I shared the story about making salsa late at night, crying and laughing and stressing about whether we would succeed. That memory is not the type of person I am — but I got there through this crazy entrepreneurial journey. The only way to succeed, especially in moments like that, is to be flexible. Understand that you’re going to face unexpected challenges and be ready to pivot. After all, if you’re going to absorb a hit anyway, you might as well work to absorb some of the shock that comes along with it so you don’t totally collapse.
Always do your own research and be prepared. While experience is crucial to success, it’s important not to count research out. I believe you can never be overprepared. In my experience, the research I did before launching ZUBI’S has given me invaluable knowledge that saves me all the time, even today.
One example of that is my research on different ways to sell product. I never wanted to private label when we launched ZUBI’S — I thought it was all about the brand and how our brand could change the world. But, as we have grown, I’ve realized that part of our impact lies in the process of making our products. We have since been able to research more opportunities for wholesale and private labeling, which has brought some incredible opportunities that I’m excited to pursue this year.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
I have two answers. If people can tolerate some heat, I highly recommend the ZUBI’S crema. I love the crema — I use it in so many dishes to add flavor and bring a little bit of spice.
If you’re looking to make a recipe, I suggest gazpacho — a cold Spanish soup. It’s such a simple recipe, yet so versatile. You can dress it up or down, from sipping in shooters to enjoying it at a five-star restaurant. I actually served it at my wedding reception. And of course, if you need a recipe, we have one on the ZUBI’S website based on our salsa and crema.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Elon Musk! He’s brilliant, a little crazy and an incredible out of the box thinker. I can totally resonate with that type of person, and he’s definitely the person I look up to most in the world today. I’d absolutely love to meet him!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn more about ZUBI’S and see some of my recipes at www.eatzubi.com, or follow us on social media.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!