Meet Alexa Fernandez – Founder & CEO of Chili Maven
Alexa Fernandez is the Founder and CEO of Chili Maven, bringing the flavour & fire of authentic Mexican chilis with her Great Taste award winning salsa macha products. Our co-founder Mex Ibrahim caught up with her recently to find out more about her background and how she was able to bring the addictive condiment from Mexico to the UK including a launch into Selfridges Food Hall.
We first met Alexa on a very damp day in July 2023 at the Savour Festival at Royal Hospital Chelsea, since then she appears to have been at every food festival we’ve visited in London and the South East! It was a huge delight that she was one of the great female food founders at our Ethical Holiday & Gifts Food Fair held on 12th December 2023 with our friends Todelli. A few days ahead of the fair we had a chat with Alexa to explore her journey and how she moved from the kitchen table to stores across the UK.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to set up Chili Maven?
I grew up in Texas, on the border with Mexico and El Paso, and my family is from Mexico. So Mexico is in my heart. The Mexican culture was always a really important part of my life. Living on a border town, the two cultures are kind of really dependent on each other.
I moved to London, when I finished graduate school with a Master’s in Business Administration and an MBA and Master’s in Public Policy. I worked in healthcare, then I worked in finance and fintech, which I really loved. But it was also a kind of a brutal, misogynistic environment.
So during the pandemic, I decided to pursue my passion for salsa macha. It’s a condiment that I’ve always loved. And it’s really hard to find outside of Mexico, and very unique to a certain part of Mexico. But, for various reasons the timing of starting a company wasn’t right, and during lockdown was when I finally had time to look into it.
What was it about salsa macha that you wanted to bring to the UK?
Mexican chili oil is something that I’ve always been obsessed with for the past 10 years. It was super hard to find outside of certain areas of Mexico. I’d always get my aunt from Mexico City to send it to me.
With any sort of dinner party at home in El Paso or in Mexico, if you bring out a jar, it’ll be finished by the end of the meal. It’s all natural and I knew that there was a lack of really premium good Mexican condiments in the UK.
I spent lockdown back in Texas so I started with the recipe development and testing it with my family and friends there. Then when I came back, I started testing the recipe with other food entrepreneurs and my friends here in the UK.
Then I started to make it out of my kitchen and selling it in 2020. At first it was just a couple of jars over Christmas. I saw that people liked it and they wanted more.
It took me about 50 tries to get the perfect recipe, based on all the feedback I was getting. So then in 2021, I decided that if I was going to start this as a business, I needed to find a manufacturer because would be too hard for me to produce at home. And if I wanted to scale in the future, I would need a manufacturer anyways.
I found somebody in Mexico. He was the perfect manufacturer who had experience in making salsa macha and was willing to experiment with my recipes. During that time I was still consulting, working with start-ups and advising them on their business. And then on the side, setting up the branding for Chili Maven and getting the website ready, so I could launch when my first shipment arrived.
That whole process took me a year. I was able to launch in December of 2021 at the Mexican Christmas market in London. I basically sold out at that market. It was kind of confirmation that the product worked. And there was definitely a demand for it.
What sets it apart from other Mexican sauces on the market?
It’s just the most versatile condiment that you can have. And it’s also nutritious and natural. And when I say versatile, it means you can use it for cooking, you could use it for marinating and you can drizzle it on your food. Both of my flavours, either mild and smoky or spicy and nutty, have a universal appeal. People from southern India say that it reminds them of a Indian chutney and then I’ve got somebody that says it reminds them of a sauce from Iran. I have somebody else who that told me it reminds them of Shito from Ghana, and also the product they would put on their beans in Zambia.
It really encompasses so many different flavours. And it’s just full of nutrition. It’s made from a blend of three different seeds: sesame, sunflower and pumpkin. And with the dried chilies, you’re actually getting a lot of protein. It’s basically a wholesome, nutritious condiment that’s going to add a burst of flavour to your meals.
How important was it that everything is made in Mexico?
You just simply wouldn’t get the quality and flavour if you made it here, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the quality of the chilies in Mexico is going to be superior to what you find abroad. Why? Because once you start importing, or exporting dried chili, by the time they arrive in the UK, they are kind of dried out a bit. A lot of that flavour and potency has been lost. So what we do is we grind the chilies. Then we grind them with the seeds and that seals in the moisture and the flavour.
I actually tried to make it in the UK because I thought it would be more sustainable. But I couldn’t find the right machinery. You have special mill in Mexico that we use to grind the chilies. Each chili has to be cleaned, deseeded & de-stemmed. Which is all done by hand, they don’t have that knowledge of how to do that expertly here. I’m working with somebody that has 30 years of experience of making salsa macha and I’m not going to find that here.
Also the flavours need to marinate. If you have it when it’s freshly made, it doesn’t have the same potency. So it takes anywhere between two to three months to arrive by boat from Mexico. In that time the salsa macha has marinated and is more potent and flavourful.
Tell us how you market your products and which channels have been most successful?
There’s the traditional route, which is Instagram, my website, and a newsletter. Then there’s in-person events, like tastings in markets. And then there are stockists themselves. All of them are vital, but the most important have been in-person events and tastings. Because people don’t understand what salsa macha is. They just don’t get it until they try it. They pick up the jar, and even as much as I try to describe it until they taste it, it’s just another sauce!
With Instagram I’ve been documenting much of my journey as an entrepreneur. It’s been important for people to understand what goes on behind the business & putting it together. The passion that goes into it, is what I share on Instagram.
Then also on Instagram is where I get other people sharing their passion because then once they get it, they want to spread the word about it and they share the recipes they have created, comment and share stories.
And then my stockists, so if I have a stockist that gets it and understands it, they help me move it so much more because they recommend it. It’s another avenue besides just selling at in-person events and online, to sharing the love of Chili Maven. My stockists are scattered across the UK. London has the biggest concentration. But I’ve got Mexican shops in Edinburgh, that stock it. I have butchers and fishmongers, it’s quite diverse. Mexican specialty shops, obviously are really important. But the other shops have just been really, really important to my journey.
The fourth most important pillar I work with is a distributor. It’s a Mexican specialist distributor, and they are the largest distributor of Mexican products in the UK and in Europe. They’ve been instrumental as well, as they’ve really helped me through the logistics. They’ve opened a few doors for me as well.
You’ve won a number of awards, can you tell us about them?
We’ve got two Great Taste Awards. We also have a gold chili award from the National Chili Awards. The Great Taste Awards I am most proud of because as a consumer, it’s always what I was looking for. If it’s got a Great Taste sticker, I’ll buy it. So getting that was pretty amazing. I only launched in December, submitted for the awards in February and won them that year. It was a big validation that we’re on the right track.
Have you ever experienced any negativity in your career because you’re a woman?
Oh, God, of course. Let’s see. I’ve been told I’m pushy, and aggressive. And then I’m bossy. I’ve been told that I’m not good enough. I’ve been told just to focus on relationships and other people will take care of the actual business stuff. Never mind that I have an MBA in business. That was another reason why I always wanted to have my own business. I really enjoyed my career in fintech. But it got to a point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. It’s just exhausting to be constantly told I wasn’t good enough and that I couldn’t do it.
What do you know now that you wish you could have told your younger self when you were starting out in the industry?
It’s what I have just said: to believe in yourself. We’re constantly told that we are not good enough. But learn not to believe it. It did take me a while, a couple years, to realize that it was happening to me as well, because at the beginning, you know, when one person tells you you’re not good enough, you think, OK, maybe I’m not good enough. But after a while, you start to see a pattern. You begin to learn that it’s more about the people saying it, than you yourself. So we shouldn’t always believe it. Be confident in yourself and push back.
You may also be interested in the following: Winners of the BBC Food and Farming Awards 2023, Championing Women in the Cheese Industry and our Podcast with Bethan Thomas CEO & Co-Founder of HotTea Mama.