Family Recipe

A tight-knit clan is behind a popular LA-based hot sauce.

Landon Nordeman

The city of Vernon, five square miles of factories southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is all business. Literally. More than 45,000 people work there; fewer than 100 live there. When Jose-Luis Saavedra, a native of Mexico City, arrived in Vernon in 1957, he found work in one of the area's aerospace plants that helped drive Southern California's postwar boom. He never dreamed that one day he would possess a 30,000-square-foot facility of his own or that the product rolling off the line would be hot sauce.

Today, Tapatio Hot Sauce, still made in Vernon by the Saavedra family, is found in supermarkets across North and Central America and in Europe. The five-ounce bottle with the sombrero-wearing charro on the label is a familiar presence not only at Mexican eateries in LA but in diners, pizza parlors, and steak houses, too. Families purchase it in gallon-jug sizes, and a packet designed for military MREs (Meal[s], Ready-to-Eat) is popular among soldiers serving abroad. It all started in Saavedra's kitchen, where he and his wife, Lolita, began bottling their own, well-balanced, vermilion-hued sauce—a blend of red chiles (to this day, the family won't reveal the variety), vinegar, garlic, and spices—to sell to Saavedra's co-workers. The sauce is robust in pepper flavor, not too acidic, and just hot enough. Saavedra called it -Tapatio, the nickname for people from Guadalajara, where his children were born. "When I started, my only idea was to earn some money to pay for their education," he says.

That was in the early 1970s, when the economic boom was going bust; the company Saavedra was working for closed, and he found two part-time jobs and a 750-foot rental space. He'd work one job in the morning, head to his rental space at lunchtime for a few hours of mixing and bottling, and then go to his second job. By this time, his children were old enough to help out at Tapatio after school. His son, Luis, recalls twisting caps onto bottle after bottle. "When I got a blister on one hand," he told me, "I'd continue with the other. That's why God gave me two!"

It took a few years of persuading LA store owners to stock the hot sauce for Tapatio to catch on. "When California's largest food distributor called to make an order," Saavedra says, "that's when I knew it was a success." In the mid-'80s, Luis came on full-time as the company's general manager. His sister Jacquie joined as the office manager, and his sister Dolores took charge of legal matters.

"People think we're crazy for working together like this," Dolores says, "but it's all we've ever known." In the Tapatio offices, the family and their employees sit down every day to eat lunch together, and, as in cafeterias, restaurants, and homes across Los Angeles, there's always a bottle of Tapatio on the table.