Made in Topeka Spotlight: Pedro Lopez Brand
That’s pretty much the story of the current incarnation of Pedro Lopez Brands.
“My mom is Mexican. (Growing up), she had a jar with the Pedro label,” recalls Shelley Valdivia, who owns the company with her husband, Rito; her parents, Juanita and Roger Wilson; and sister, Robin Lobb. “We always used it for every taco recipe. She’d make chorizo and eggs for our friends. It’s part of our heritage and our history. It’s just how we cook.”
Humble Beginnings The Pedro Lopez name dates back 100 years. Pedro Lopez emigrated from Mexico to Topeka in the early 1900s. Lopez saved his money to buy a delivery truck, founding the company in 1915 by selling hot peppers in brine. Lopez would gradually expand into a full line of spices, seasonings, sauces and other Mexican food products. Roger Wilson said his wife, Juanita, recalls seeing Lopez in his store when she was a little girl.
The original Lopez family sold the company in the 1970s. It went through several owners and, by the early 2000s, the products started disappearing from store shelves as the business struggled. At this time, Roger and Rito started formulating an idea to buy the company themselves.
“We had made an offer before (and were turned down), then we heard it was going to the bank,” Rito said.
In Fall 2011, Roger and his family bought Pedro Lopez brands at auction. The retired Air Force aircraft mechanic was now a business owner. “I got a business degree from Washburn and didn’t think I’d ever use it for anything, but it’s coming in handy now,” he said with a chuckle.
Sticking with Tradition Beyond the name, the most valuable item included in the purchase might not look like much to some.
“We inherited this recipe book that was yellowed and had all these handwritten recipes on it. We call it the sacred recipe book,” Roger said.
The book, which has since been converted to digital format, allowed the family to keep to their original goal—to preserve the authentic flavor that is Pedro Lopez. Roger said they spent six months researching the recipes and where to find the ingredients. The blend of 18 spices that makes up their chili powder comes from all over the world. The chili powder, taco seasoning, other spice blends and mole sauce all are produced in a kitchen in an industrial building on Topeka’s near east side.
Mexican chocolate is cooked, poured into hand molds and wrapped by hand. The special spice blend for chorizo is sent to Fanestil Meats in Emporia to blend for sale. The family usually picks one product a week to produce, cooking five to 10 hours, then moving on to the packaging and distribution process.
“You can smell the chili powder a mile away!” Shelley said.
The family has put in a few modern twists. The original Pedro Lopez spices used to come in brown paper bags. They’ve now switched to plastic jars with an updated logo. Plus, today’s equipment makes the production process move a bit more easily. But what’s inside has not changed.
“I got a call from a guy in Minnesota who wanted to know if it was the same original recipe,” Roger said. “It’s a lot of satisfaction for us. People tell us all the time they’re glad we brought the product back.”
Balancing Act Most of the work is done on evenings and weekends. Even though Juanita and Roger are retired, the others maintain full-time jobs. “That’s the tricky part,” Robin said. “Obviously, our full-time jobs come first because that’s what pays the bills and insurance. It’s a juggling act for sure.”
Together, they make it work. Rito might run their children to baseball practice while Shelley helps in the kitchen. Robin squeezes in the bookkeeping after her baby is asleep. The grandchildren often get involved, sticking labels on jars and boxes. As for mom and dad’s retirement?
“We got this far, but we haven’t quite made it all the way yet,” Roger jokes. And laughter is a big part of what keeps them going. “We’re all pretty close anyway, we live a half block from each other,” Shelley said, looking around the kitchen space and adding, “We never thought we’d be this close!”
The company sells its products in grocery and specialty stores around the state—Dillons, HyVee and Price Chopper are among their customers— and through its website, www.pedrolopezbrand.com. They also supply the seasonings for the annual Fiesta Mexicana food. The family says they’re perfectly content to be a small, family business.
“For us, it’s gratifying to see another way that we can stay together as a family and do things together,” Roger said. “Probably not every family could pull this off. We have a good time down here.”
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