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Mexican culture on offer; guac and chips on the side

Moving to Toronto from Mexico some 20 years ago, chemical engineer Vladimir Gonzalez said he just couldn’t find the authentic foods he grew up with in Mexico City in his newly adopted Canadian home. Sure, there were fast food taco joints, and grocery store shelves filled with wraps and salsas, but nothing like the foods his family used to make. 


“I wanted foods that reminded me of home dishes with a base of corn, beans, spices, chili peppers, tomatoes, onion, and garlic. I remember how my grandmother would grind the corn with stone; she cooked everything from scratch. I didn’t see that here,” says Gonzalez of a newfound passion that was born right then: to share his Mexican culture and cuisine with whoever wanted to learn about it.  


The idea stayed with Gonzalez, even as demands kept him working at the career he was trained in. But years later, following a trek to Alberta to work in the oil field, a subsequent move to be near family in Calgary, and then a layoff, the dream of creating authentic Mexican products came back to life with Maxi Foods (the name combines those of his children, Maximiliano and Xiadani), now a growing business Gonzalez co-owns with ex-wife Cynthia Ramirez. 


“My son thinks the business is named entirely for him,” laughs Gonzelez, who now has two teenagers that do help with the business from time to time, though school is a priority.  

Officially started some eight years ago, Maxi Foods operates from a 2,300 square foot facility in Airdrie where Gonzalez routinely rolls up his sleeves (with a couple of employees) to create and package gluten-free tortillas and chips, sauces, and dips for grocery and market sales. 


“I enjoy overcoming obstacles,” laughs Gonzalez of the journey that led him from the office to the prep kitchen.  

 "People want to buy quality Mexican foods from a person with Mexican heritage. Vladimir is like the 'Juan Valdez' of Mexican products."

It may sound like it has all been happening in a linear way, but Gonzalez admits there have been plenty of challenges – from product, equipment, and supply chain issues because of the pandemic, to putting himself 24/7 into the fledgling operation.  

Gonzalez credits the SMARTstart entrepreneurial training program in Airdrie with really setting him on his way. Several years back, Gonzalez was paired with mentor (and retired businessman) Sid Van der Meer to create a business plan and gain skills and tools to help him succeed in the crowded, competitive field of retail Mexican fare. Learning about all aspects of owning and operating a small business, Gonzalez is one of over 140 entrepreneurs helped by SMARTstart since it began in 2014.  


“We were making everything by hand, sometimes doing prep all night,” he remembers of the early rented kitchen space in Airdrie. “Sid’s help was invaluable, and The SMARTstart workshops – understanding the finances of running a business – was a big part of the learning process.” 


So was finding the ‘how?’ for a business looking for shelf space for tortilla chips, guacamole, and salsas. Grocery shelves have long been choc a bloc with packaged tortilla shells, dips, and sauces, Gonzalez points out, so how to set Maxi Foods products apart? Locally made, check. Answering consumer demand for organic and vegan offerings; products made without preservatives, artificial colours or fillers – check and check. Citing quality above all, using imported, authentic Mexican dried chilis, garlic and onion powders – even lime and tomato powders, Gonzalez says it’s ultimately a passion for sharing his heritage through authentic Mexican recipes that makes his company and how he promotes it, unique. 


“I saw Vladimir’s work ethic right away; he’s not afraid to work hard,” says Van der Meer, who advised Gonzalez to test his products with consumers via farmers’ markets, to ‘make sure people like it and want it’. And even though starting Maxi Foods just as COVID-19 set in presented yet another challenge to the new entrepreneur, (using Mexican production equipment that needed Mexican expertise to help set up), Gonzalez was undeterred. 


“The plan was to grow fast, but the pandemic slowed all that down,” Gonzalez says. “We couldn’t do markets or demos even though grocery stores were doing very well. But we had a loan that helped us survive, and in that time I learned every aspect of the business, even assembling the machinery myself.” 


“People want to buy quality Mexican foods from a person with Mexican heritage. Vladimir is like the Juan Valdez (an advertising icon synonymous with Colombian coffee) of Mexican products,” Van der Meer asserts. Case in point. The genial Gonzalez has been making a mark with his unique approach, sometimes showing marketgoers the best way to assemble and eat a taco, or attract grocery shoppers with a food demo surrounded by a mariachi band. 


Because Mexican ingredients are much easier to find down the international aisle and dairy case today than in years past, dried chilies, hot sauces, guacamoles, cheeses such as queso fresco and dairy products like crema, have become commonplace. Gonzalez says it’s consumer demand for dairy-free, vegan options in the category that is providing him a niche; products like the company’s popular vegan chipotle cream made with organic cashews is an example. 


Today, Gonzalez and company produce nearly 1,000 bags of tortilla chips on a typical eight-hour shift. And while the entrepreneur sells directly to retailers in and around Calgary, Red Deer, and Edmonton, growth may demand that wholesale sales come next. 


Gonzalez acknowledges he’d like to be more involved in sales and less in production as the company continues to grow. Already in many Safeway, Sobeys, Co-op Stores, and Blush Organics, Maxi Foods products are now finding their way into Freson Bros. stores, Sunterra and Save on Foods, and the company hopes to soon launch a nacho kit after getting good response testing it at farmers’ markets. 


“I’ve learned there are two kinds of people in the business world; the spectators and the people who make it happen. I wish to be the latter.” 


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