Nopal snacks find niche

WESLACO — If McAllen entrepreneur Oscar Torres’ goals come to fruition, another international bridge will emerge in the Rio Grande Valley.

Torres, president of the Weslaco-based Nopal Bros. snack company, hails from Monterrey, Mexico, but now calls himself “an adopted son of the Valley.” Trained as an industrial engineer, he eventually pursued a business graduate degree in Barcelona, Spain. There he enjoyed a course in marketing and became drawn to the idea of building a brand.

“A brand that goes beyond just trying to sell,” Torres said.

He eventually returned to Mexico and then relocated to the Valley, motivated by the size of the American market and family living in the area.

He chose to produce snacks made from the nopal — the leaves of Mexico’s prickly pear cactus. Torres created a hybrid of sorts between a snack and candy that sells for $1.49. He explained the vegetable’s significance to Mexican culture, calling it an “important part of the Mexican culture, history, tradition (and) folklore.”

“For me, nopal is

like a Mexican superfood,” he said.

Even for those unfamiliar with the nopal, they’ve likely seen it countless times. It’s featured in the middle of the Mexican flag, supporting the familiar eagle and snake, Torres said, adding later: “When you appear on the national flag, you know you have some importance.”

The nopal’s value to Mexico’s identity extends to common colloquialisms as well.

“One of the most popular slangs in Mexico is the phrase ‘Tienes el nopal en la frente,’” he said. “Which means ‘You have the nopal on the forehead,’ as a way of saying you are clearly Mexican.”

He explains that the vegetable also represents “part of the tradition that Hispanics from Mexican origin bring to the U.S., especially older generations.”

Torres fears that the subsequent generations are less inclined to take the torch from their predecessors. He described younger Hispanics as “drifting away from the importance of nopal in their roots.”

That’s where Torres’ nascent company comes in. He hopes that his snacks can help the next generation stay “connected to an important part of their culture by engaging them with a fun and meaningful brand.”

He toured his product around local fairs, and brought it to the 2012 National Confectioners Association Sweet and Snacks Expo, ““the biggest snacks expo for the whole U.S,” Torres said.

Nopal Bros. received first place in the expo’s “Most Innovative New Product Awards” for the savory snacks category. It was watershed moment for the company, Torres said.

“What this did was give credibility,” he said.

The product was approved for sale in area H-E-B grocery stores last year, and received the same agreement for Wal-Mart this year.

“There were no snacks made from nopal in the Valley when we entered the market,” he said via e-mail. “Our snacks have a difficult-to-find combination of great taste, enjoyable texture and nutritional value.”

He emphasized that the snacks contain natural ingredients and no preservatives or colorants.

“At its core it is a veggie snack, and there aren’t many,” he said. “People get surprised when they taste them, they don’t expect them at all to taste so good and have a delightful chewy texture similar to gummies.”

Julio Falcon, owner of distribution company RioPlex, said that Nopal Bros. snacks now appear in all H-E-B and Wal-Mart locations in the Valley. They plan to expand into the Houston and Dallas markets.

“They’re pretty happy with the product,” Franco said.

Jolynn Hasler, co-owner of Major Health Foods in McAllen, carries Nopal Bros. snacks. Torres’ novel approach to the nopal impressed her.

“For it to be in this form, for me, was different to see it that way,” she said. “We try to support the local people that are doing their own thing.”

Torres is not the first to produce a snack made from the nopal. Such foods are “regionalized” in his native Mexico, he said. He emphasizes that while the food’s roots are Mexican, his company and this particular incarnation of the nopal are also American.

“Nopal Bros, as a brand, really was born here,” he said.

Torres credits the Valley’s environment as instrumental to his product’s diffusion. The high concentration of people of Mexican heritage helps.

“Another big reason is the many fairs, expos and festivals that are held in the area,” Torres said. “That allowed Nopal Bros. to promote and gain exposure in ways that would be very difficult in metropolitan areas.”

He hopes Nopal Bros. can serve as “an ambassador brand,” one that markets “a new innovative snack that is a healthier alternative to traditional candies and snacks.”

“It also gives the chance to appeal to the roots of Mexican Hispanics in the U.S. and to share a bit of Mexico in an innovative new way,” Torres said.

Upcoming goals for the company are two-fold, Torres said. The first is to have his product sold in Whole Foods stores. Secondly, he hopes to further expand in Los Angeles, where Nopal Bros. is already sold in approximately 40 locations.

He has a larger goal for Nopal Bros: “to be one of the biggest Hispanic brands” this side of the Rio Grande.

“Why not?”