It might seem odd or overly precious to fixate on a corn chip, but there’s something to be said for the perfection of the simplest of things in our diets, especially those things that hold up other foods (literally in this case). And for anyone who hasn’t had Chicas chips, take it on good authority that they’re really, really good.
Doing some light research online, we couldn’t find out a ton about the company beyond your standard About web page, but were intrigued by some of the messaging on the packaging and what exactly makes them so very good. So we reached out to the Southern California company that makes the chips, Arboleda Foods, to find out more. We ending up talking with their head of marketing + design and daughter of company owners, Sarah Chaidez (below, first row, far left), about the origins of the family-run business, what it means to be an immigrant-run business that bills itself as ‘proudly American’ in the current socio-political environment, and why we can’t stop eating these chips. Seriously. Can’t stop.
raven + crow: So, first thing’s first—we love your chips and salsa. We’re honestly pretty obsessed with the chips especially at this point. I think we’re mainly interested in finding out a little more about the history of the company and how it came to be—can you tell us a little about how it all started?
Sarah Chaidez: We started in 2010 selling a homemade salsa at several So-Cal Farmers Markets. The recipe originated from the owner Irlanda Montes’ mother. The salsa was so good that it needed good chips to sample it with. Fortunately for us, none of the chips Irlanda found in markets got of her approval so she decided to make her own. To her surprise, people started requesting the chips and she started getting up at 5am to make a few batches before heading to the farmer’s markets. The chips started to become so popular that she soon had to rent a small commercial kitchen to be able to produce them.
That’s awesome. Like I said, we LOVE the chips, so it makes sense. Cool to see such a direct supply-and-demand relationship though. Was food culture a really big part of Irlanda’s upbringing?
Yes, she was born in Ecuador. During her upbringing she saw her father and mother go to the open air market every day to buy fresh ingredients for their daily meals. When she came to the United States, she continued the tradition of having fresh cooked meals daily. Good homemade food was always on the menu and it always brought the family together.
That’s something that I feel like has only recently again become more common in our post-war culture and upbringings here in the States even though it’s so deeply rooted in so many other cultures. The salsa really is great too, but what do you think it is about the chips that make people love them so much?
The salsa that we have right now is a new recipe originating from the original. The original recipe had to be refrigerated and we needed a shelf-stable salsa to be able to place it along the chips. On the other hand, we have kept the original recipe for our chips from the beginning. What makes them great is not only the recipe, but the process of how they are made. Chicas™ recipe is not a common chip recipe. Therefore, the process of making them and frying them is different than what you see out there. Also, we added the uniqueness of rice bran oil which makes the chips lighter, fresher, and healthier.
What goes into making the chips, in terms of ingredient sourcing and then actually producing them?
We make sure that our ingredients come from very reliable companies. They work hand-in-hand with our needs and the needs of our customers. We believe it is not just the ingredients that make the chip, but the time and labor it takes to make them. The process itself is similar to most other chips, but we proudly can say that we put lots of love and care into their production. The biggest difference is that some of the processes is done by hand to keep the unique flavor and texture of our chip.
Why do you all use rice bran oil? Is that a family tradition or something more born from recipe testing?
We did very extensive research about all types of different oils. We found out about rice bran oil having lots of health benefits and having a high smoke point. This made it a perfect match for our chip. Even though this oil is more complicated to get and more expensive, we definitely wanted to add some good-for-you ingredients into our chips.
Yeah, we had no idea we loved rice bran oil so much. Who knew? Can you tell us about the name, Chicas—‘girls’ in Spanish—is that a reflection in the people that run the company?
When we had just started the company, Irlanda’s sisters came along to help. They spent endless hours in the commercial kitchen frying. This was new to them since they all worked in office environments before, but this became a time of bonding and laughter. Traditionally in South America, instead of calling each other by name, they would all call each other ‘Chica’, which means girl in Spanish. With Irlanda and her three sisters in the kitchen, you can imagine this word was used a lot. At that time the chips were called Arboleda Chips, named after the company. Eventually Irlanda’s sisters moved on to do other things, but Irlanda never forgot those times she spent with her sisters. Later on we wanted a simpler and catchier name. So, in honor of her sisters, Irlanda named them Chicas Chips.
I know you’ve said that the company started out and remains very much a family endeavor—can you tell us a little more about that?
When the company first started in 2010, Ray and Irlanda invited various family members to help including her mom, brothers, sisters, a sister-in-law, nieces, nephews, son and daughters. Time passed where many came and went, but to this day it is still a family business. Ray and Irlanda, as husband and wife (above, first row, middle), are heads of the business, and their two daughters—myself and my sister, Nastassia (above, first row, far right)—handle marketing, accounting, and purchasing.
Very cool. You all are based out of Harbor City, right? Is most everyone at the company Los Angeles natives?
Pretty much! Irlanda came from Ecuador at the age of thirteen and Ray came from El Salvador at the age of six. Even though Irlanda kept a lot more of her Latin traditions, they both have embraced American cultures. Nastassia and I were born in the US and raised as LA natives. Our other employees are a mixed of Los Angeles natives and other immigrants from other Latin countries, like Mexico, Peru and Honduras.
On your chip bags, you have a graphic going across the top that reads ‘PROUDLY AMERICAN’—why was that important to put front-and-center for you all?
Ray and Irlanda are entrepreneurs. They have started different businesses in the past before becoming successful with Chicas™, and they are beyond thankful that America has given them the opportunity to do so. Where Chicas™ is now would not have been possible without all the opportunities that are given to us here in the states. We are proud to be here and proud to be able to give back by creating new jobs.
Do you feel like that sentiment has taken a different tone or is seen in a new light in what a lot of us see as a political and social climate that’s soundly anti-immigrant?
The political situation that is going on right now does not take away from the beauty this country represents. Throughout history there have been seasons of good and bad. There is a lot of negativity in our country today, but our focus is on the good of our country and the kindness of many Americans. We will continue doing our part to do the right thing and will continue to embrace our Proudly American representation.
Beautifully put. For the most part, has the experience of starting and running a business in Los Angeles been a good one? I mean, as a fellow small business owner, I know it’s tough, but seems like you all are doing really well.
Irlanda and Ray have had many ups-and-downs, especially since they started their business right after a very bad economic period. They are truly fighters, and the company has persevered even though many times they felt like giving it all up. The company is stable and growing now, but tough would be an understatement. It definitely takes everything you’ve got. We truly are fortunate to have a really good product that has kept our hopes high, and seeing the response we get from our customers gives us an eagerness to strive forward. We trust in God that soon we will be able to say that we are doing really well.
Likewise. We’ll do our part by buying as many chips as we can eat. Which is a lot, trust me. I have a kind of nerdy product packaging question—I know back in the day you did more of the traditional tie-closed bags for the chips, but now you have what I honestly have to say are the nicest chip bags; they open really easily and look really nice and non-crinkly after being opened. How did you manage that or who makes those for you, if you don’t mind me asking?
The reason we started with twisty-tie closed bags is because being a small company that was just starting, we only had the equipment and knowledge to seal them this way. To our surprise, people loved it! They felt like they were getting chips out of a home kitchen. The reason we upgraded is because as we grew we needed something more secure for shipping and food safety. The bags were now in store warehouses, exposed to cross contamination, or too easy to break open. At this point we needed to think of our customers and provide them with the same chip quality but better packaging. Ray, Irlanda, and I come from a graphic artist background, therefore we knew that presentation was essential, so we are proud of our creation in and out. In regards to the material, it has been a long journey to get the best film for our chips, making sure it is American-made. The company that makes our bags as well as our cardboard boxes are local family-owned business as we are.
Oh, cool—I had no idea the bags were American-made too. That’s great. Any future plans for expansion—either in terms of products beyond salsa and chips or into other markets—on the horizon?
We are striving for continued growth. We are working to get into new markets, expand our online store, and also expand into the food service industry. For now, we are just in the Southern California area, but soon we will be in some Northern California markets. With regards to other products, we are always fiddling with new recipes and products. But, as you can see, we have to be extremely happy with a product to be willing to put our effort into it. More than anything we want to provide our customers with lots of satisfaction that will keep them coming back for more.
Well we’re hooked.
If you’re interested in trying Chicas chips + salsa, check their locations page on their site for stores that carry them. Or just come to our house. We likely have a fresh bag.
All photos with the exception of the feature one courtesy of Arboleda Foods.