By Benjamin Treviño
Starting a business is a challenging process. It’s even more challenging when dealing with the burdens of chronic illness. However, for at least one McAllen family, illnesses were the inducement for their business idea.
“I had a problem pregnancy with my second baby,” Andrea Rivera recalled. “I was undergoing steroid treatments, and I was always tired. My skin was dry, my nails were chipping, and my teeth were falling out. My husband, Dwight, had PTSD, anxiety, and several knee surgeries from an injury he suffered in the Army. He was on a lot of pills and he gained a lot of weight. I wanted something better for us.”
Andrea set out to change her husband’s diet and her own. Using their mother’s recipes, Andrea and her sister, Maria Montiel, started a line of keto-friendly foods and spreads that contain no animal products, sugars, sodium, or saturated fats. It began with one almond-based mayonnaise, which now comes in five flavors — garlic, lemon, ranch, cocoa hazelnut, and chipotle. Their line then expanded to include a sweet potato pizza bread, and a meal-prep service. They call their fledgling business Ya’ax Vegan Foods.
“We wanted a name affiliated with our roots,” said Andrea. “My dad was from Israel, so we were playing with some names and different languages, and my mom asked, ‘What do you think of Ya’ax? It means green in Hebrew.’ liked it, so we used that name.”
Andrea and Maria began by selling their products at Andrea’s fitness club. After getting rave reviews, they started selling them at farmers markets. The sisters then began taking orders and making deliveries around the Valley. After hawking their products at vegan festivals in San Antonio, and Corpus Christi, they began hearing from people from out of state who wanted to try their products.
“Things have been happening really, really fast,” Andrea said. “I did an interview with a radio station in Houston about how a plant-based diet changed our lives. Somehow, a Georgia University marketing department found us, and they want to do a marketing campaign for us over there in Georgia.”
Ya’ax Vegan Foods also caught the attention of the judges at this year’s McAllen Chamber of Commerce Innovation Grant Awards competition. The upstart company walked away with a $2,500 grant, which Andrea intends to use for a food analysis of their product line. Andrea says the chamber has been instrumental in the development of their business from the outset.
“Obviously they helped me with the grant,” Andrea said. “But, they also helped me with the vegan fest that we had in San Antonio. They helped me out with labels, with flyers, and they helped me to find the canning jars that I use. If I ever have a question, Michelle and Jorge are always there. I call them for everything when I have questions.”
The McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s Innovation Grant Awards program is one of 14 initiatives the chamber has in place to help local inventors and entrepreneurs launch their product ideas.
“We want to create that ecosystem where people can succeed,” said McAllen Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Steve Alhenius. “Ya’ax Vegan Foods is just another example of the innovative food products being developed right here. It’s another keto-friendly food that is low in sugar, low in carbs, all the things that you want to see. They’re now working on their shelf life and their labeling and I think once they get that part done they’ll be ready in terms of ramping up production. It’s been really cool seeing these products develop.”
Andrea says her products are part of a new diet and lifestyle changes that have transformed her and her husband’s lives. According to Andrea, he has lost 90 pounds and she has lost 58 pounds. Both of them have also significantly reduced their reliance on medications, she claims. Andrea admits that sometimes she gets frustrated with the minutiae of starting a business, but she says the rave reviews and the results her clients are seeing are what keep her going. Her advice to other budding entrepreneurs is to forge ahead, despite any challenges and self-doubts one might have.
“As long as you have an idea, just go with it,” said Andrea. “I didn’t know anything about the food business. I had no idea about the equipment we need. I had no idea we needed a commercial kitchen. I didn’t know how many farmers markets are here. You can’t be afraid of not doing it, because you don’t know. The moment you reach out to the city and the chamber they’ll help you out. They’ll help you out tons.”