Unable to provide for her in Mexico, Sarah Zubiate’s mother gave her up for adoption when she was born. But when she was adopted by a family in El Paso, one of the things that followed her to her new family in the U.S. was a passion for food.
When Zubiate finally met her birth family, she realized something they imparted in her was a drive to build a better life. Over the past few years, she has used that drive to build a brand of organic, plant-based and largely allergen-free Latin American dips. Called ZUBI’S, which plays off of her last name and also translates to “bridge” in the Basque region of Spain, Zubiate has gone from selling products from her trunk to landing on the shelves of 200 retail stores across 25 states.
“The reason I wanted it to be in food was because we had delicious food, fantastic food, but it was very, very unhealthy,” Zubiate, who serves as CEO, said.
Zubiate always planned to build ZUBI’S into a household name, but she had to start somewhere. That start came in 2013 when she began cooking up test recipes. At the time, she said she would spend her Fridays – from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. – making batches of her dips, which includes a lineup of salsa, queso and crema. She would then drive to the Dallas Farmers Market around 7 a.m. to sell it.
“I went to the farmers market with the intent of having a business,” Zubiate said. “Because I had no background in food, I thought, ‘Well, no one is going to accept me into any store, unless I have some proven track record and I have actual comments and feedback. I used the farmers market as a proving pad, as a launching point for everything that I did.”
She said eventually people began showing up to the farmer’s market specifically for her, and that’s the moment she knew she “had something viable.” Like many founders, Zubiate had to keep her day job in finance while developing her company. And in 2017, she officially launched ZUBI’S and made it her sole focus, after landing ZUBI’S first retail partner: H-E-B and Central Market. Since then, the company has also found its way onto the shelves of other places like Costco.
Around 2019, ZUBI’S hit one of its biggest hurdles. A co-packer in Dallas that the company was using went bankrupt. She knew finding another certified organic manufacturer would be difficult, especially when some of the less common ingredients ZUBI’S uses are expensive to purchase. However, Zubiate didn’t want to raise her prices, so she went looking for land to build her own manufacturing facility.
“I went and started crunching these numbers. I thought, ‘Wait, wait, wait. So, any other person, any other co-packer who makes our product, they’re going to be marking this up,’” Zubiate said. “No way, (retailers) would drop me.”
She found that site on a piece of family land in Athens, Tx. about 75 miles outside of Dallas, and it now hosts ZUBI’S in-house manufacturing. While Zubiate started running the operations of the 3,700 square-foot site largely on her own, it now houses the company’s 13 employees. It is certified organic, operates with zero waste, and uses fresh well water and a solar farm to power its operations. Zubiate said she wants to build something that can make a difference and produce better-tasting food. It also allows ZUBI’S to scale quicker, she said.
“I didn’t sleep. I was killing myself to get this operation up and running because I didn’t understand farming the way I needed to, I didn’t know how to run a facility. But I can project manage and I’m a quick study,” Zubiate said. “I was quickly able to make sure that I made the right hires to replace myself, once the sales started scaling. And the product never tasted better in its life.”
Despite the pandemic, ZUBI’S has continued to grow. Zubiate said saw an uptick in sales last year, especially from online retailers as people looked for healthy snack alternatives. While she declined to disclose specific numbers, Zubiate said the company revenue was six figures in 2020 and expects to hit seven-figure revenue this year, without venture backing.
While most of ZUBI’S sales come from brick-and-mortar retailers, the uptick in online sales seen during the pandemic has caused Zubiate to begin investing more heavily in the space. Online sales allow the company to expand its reach in a less expensive way than bringing on new retail partners, she said, which often requires investments by way of advertising and free products. Zubiate said she eventually sees online sales becoming the main “bread and butter” for the company in the future.
“It’s not even an option at this point to not invest capital in Amazon, our website and Facebook ads and Instagram ads, just like they were an actual retailer,” Zubiate said.
ZUBI’S isn’t just looking to expand its reach, it’s also looking to add to its product line and verticals. While hinting at upcoming bean-related products, Zubiate said the company’s next product will be something needed with any array of dips: a chip or crisp to scoop it with. That product is expected to launch in Q4 of this year and will allow ZUBI’S to sell to partners in the hospitality and airline industries, which typically want products that are pre-packaged together.
“(ZUBI’S) is my life story,” Zubiate said. “I guess I’m just built to want to make a difference...If I can’t make a difference and if I can’t fight for something, then I should never expect anyone else to.”