From Lawyer to Vegan Snack Queen: Regina Trillo Transforms Nopales Into Crunchy Snacks
What’s green, spiny, and has a citrusy tart taste? Only one of the most common edible plants in Mexico and Central America: nopales. Sure, you may have had the prickly pear paddles with eggs, tacos, and salsa… but have you eaten them in the form of crunchy snack sticks?
This ingenious idea came to Mexican lawyer and entrepreneur Regina Trillo twelve years ago.
It all started with a disappointing trip to the grocery store.
She saw stereotypical Mexican imagery — we’re talking sombreros galore — on the packaging of products in the ethnic aisle. The memory stayed in the back of her mind, coming back to the surface when she decided to start Nemi Snacks in 2019.
Nemi Snacks are a nutritious and vegan alternative to processed snack foods. The cactus stick chips are made with real ingredients like chia seeds, amaranth, and spirulina.
Using fresh and readily-available ingredients ties back to the meaning of the word “Nemi.” Coming from the Aztec language of Náhuatl, the four-letter word means “to live.”
“The simpler we live, sometimes [is] the easiest, the better, the happiest,” explained Trillo. “So, to me, that simplicity comes from eating from nature.”
In an interview with mitú, Trillo lets us in on her career shift, staying true to her brand’s vision, and the surprises in store for Nemi Snacks.
From lawyer to vegan snack queen
Trillo moved from Mexico City to Chicago to attend law school in 2011 and work in the human rights field, practicing immigration law. She worked with people who were forced to leave their home countries and assess what kind of relief she could get for them to stay legally in the United States.
Then came her idea of showcasing her home country through a modern and authentic lens in those grocery store aisles. Although she didn’t have experience in the consumer packaged goods world or business, that didn’t stop her from just going for it — with a lot of passion and some fear.
She was becoming her own jefa at Nemi Snacks while she was providing assistance to people at her day job — full-time at both. About six months into her new project, she witnessed growth and positive feedback pouring in. Suddenly, only pursuing Nemi Snacks full-time seemed like a promising opportunity.
“If you’re starting a business with no background, sometimes it’s hard to see yourself ten years from now,” said Trillo. “I think that coming from that space, you start learning that as you start working on the business and growing the business.”
Trillo recently made the decision to step back from her legal career, officially making the jump to move full-time into Nemi Snacks in July 2023. She got to the point where juggling two jobs became harder to focus on, and draining her mentally and energetically. Furthermore, it was not what she wanted for herself, her team, or her business.
It took her a while to make peace with this exciting yet scary plan. “I think fear is a never-ending companion, and it’s always gonna be there,” said Trillo. “It’s just about doing the dance.”
The making of Nemi Snacks
Creating a bite-sized representation of Mexico was a journey in itself, starting with Trillo making the recipe at home. She enjoys cooking, and she already had an idea of flavor profiles and ingredients to include in the test runs. For example, she knew how to get flaxseed and chia seeds nice and gooey and the differences in using puffed versus powdered amaranth.
However, it was a challenge finding a co-backer who aligned with Trillo’s vegan and natural vision.
No artificial colors and ingredients were actually deal breakers for some of the seasoning companies she met with. She continued her search and ultimately found a co-backer in Mexico that was open to her concept of using mercado-fresh spices and chiles.
“The snack I make is a very common snack in Mexico,” said Trillo. “You see it on the street, you see it in grocery stores, but it’s mostly the unhealthy version. It’s pretty much either fried wheat or fried corn with artificial seasonings. Some of [the companies] said no, some of them were not interested, and that was okay.”
Trillo also started looking for independent nopal farmers to source her star ingredient. They connected by word of mouth and by reaching out to friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends. Trillo created the website on her own, and her sister designed the first iteration of packaging.
As for funding, the company is bootstrapped; they are able to grow through grants, good margins, and sales.
In a sea of fried and unhealthy products, Nemi Snacks currently offers four distinct and delicious flavors: Chile Turmeric, Mexican Lime, Smoky Chipotle (which is inspired by Trillo’s mother’s salsa de chipotle), and the sweet Churro. A new seasonal spicy flavor is coming in early summer: “I can’t wait to share it. We’re just doing final touches on the packaging,” confirms Trillo.
Being a motivated and hands-on boss
Part of Nemi Snacks’ success is how involved Trillo is with every aspect of the business. She rebranded since first starting out, and she was able to successfully do so by talking to the consumers, asking questions, and then asking even better questions.
“It’s a constant conversation,” adds Trillo. “We’re always tweaking something here and there, always questioning how we can improve. We’re always curious about doing it differently and doing it better.”
Her expertise in law contributes to some of her business sense; writing persuasively and going through contracts and regulations. Particularly, empathy might be the most beneficial trait as she transitions into Nemi Snacks. Trillo’s work in human rights granted her the ability to find human connection in a short amount of time. This characteristic translates directly to consumers and buyers.
As the CEO of her brand, the most important thing she learned with time is the discipline of keeping herself accountable. It was crucial, especially as her team grew.
“I’m responsible for leading while I’m upholding the vision and providing the resources that my team needs,” said Trillo. “And if I don’t do those two things, I’m probably failing. If I’m not keeping myself and the team accountable, I probably won’t see results.”
Trillo also leans on mentors and fellow Latinas in the consumer packaged goods industry when it comes to difficult periods. Additionally, she’s comfortable asking for help and admitting when she doesn’t know about or how to do something.
Another motivating factor for her is the mission behind the brand: “Your ‘why’ needs to be a very strong ‘why,’ and something you align with or identify with,” said Trillo. “Problems never leave. They just change. Your ‘why’ sometimes is the only thing that keeps you moving forward.”
Trillo’s ‘why’ is to present Mexican culture in a high-quality and fun way, and she’s able to keep it up by having a self-care routine. It helps her remain centered and feel confident. Whether she only checks one thing off her to-do list or many, she understands that she tries her best every day.
The importance of community in her business
In short, the main tenets of Trillo’s business model are sustainability, equity, and mutual aid. On the Nemi Snacks website, it notably says, “A good business should be good to the community.” She believes that we are the change we want to see and that we’re beyond the era of starting a business only for money.
“If I want this to be sustainable, how can I do it in a way that I am leaving a space better than how I found it?” said Trillo.
She works with farmers that use sustainable farming techniques and pays them a dignified wage. This is especially because she meet many who left their home countries due to predatory practices.
Additionally, Trillo also partnered with a local nonprofit committed to food justice in order to give back and uplift the community.
Trillo is intentional about working with suppliers and vendors that have female employees in leadership positions, many of them being Latina-led. In fact, her compliance questionnaires emphasize equal pay and women of color in these roles.
This is all part of her wish to witness a growing Latina presence in her industry. Being able to help them get ahead in their careers while growing her own is just the cherry on top.
“To me, being a Latina is a gift,” said Trillo. “It’s such a privilege, it’s an opportunity, and it’s a responsibility, too.”
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