When Annie Leal’s dad was diagnosed with diabetes 10 years ago, his entire lifestyle had to change. But little did she know it would one day change her life, too.
“My dad immediately changed his diet around, but he’s always had a sweet tooth and I’ve known for years that he has a cabinet full of sugar-free treats,” Leal explains. About 18 months ago, she rummaged through the sugar-free treats her dad stashed in his pantry, hoping to find something sweet for herself. She also wanted to fulfill the craving for Mexican candy, something she particularly enjoyed, having been born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico. Yet there was nothing—only chocolates, lollipops, and caramels.
“I was like, ‘How do they not have sugar-free Mexican candy?’ and he was like, ‘Mija, I can’t find it,’” Leal reenacts. She was in disbelief, spending the entire evening combing the internet for some form of spicy and sweet sugar-free candy to provide for her dad, but there was none. The answer was immediately obvious to her: she would have to make it herself. That was the beginning of I Love Chamoy, a Mexican sugar-free sauce brand created by Leal.
“The next day, I had my dad drive me to Target to pick up notebooks and markers, like it was the first day of school,” Leal laughs. “I had no idea where to start, but I just began drafting up names and a logo.”
Leal has a background in social media and marketing, and had been developing branding for a business helmed by a food engineer. It was then that she decided to enlist her help for the recipe and development part of I Love Chamoy. “I never thought I’d be in consumer goods,” she says, adding, “I truly cannot cook to save my life, which is the funny part.”
Although Leal didn’t know exactly how research and development worked, she intimately knew what chamoy should taste like. Thus began her journey of testing iteration after iteration of sugar-free chamoy, concocted with chili pepper, limes, citric acid, and sweetened with monk fruit. By the 27th version, Leal was convinced she had nailed the flavor down and presented it to her dad and sister.
Although she loves her family and their unending support of her and the business, they are not ones to be dishonest. “My little sister is critical but in the best way possible,” Leal laughs. “I expected her to be like, ‘This is so good,’ but instead she was like, ‘You’re not there yet.’” It was back to the drawing board and version 44 turned out to be the winner—a perfect balance of sweet, spicy, and tangy, without the added sugar.
Leal’s first run was an order of 750 bottles, something she hoped she could sell within a six-month period. But using her marketing chops, she posted about her business on TikTok, hoping to draw at least some attention for her new product. The video went viral and her order sold out in less than a week. “It turns out a lot of people have stories similar to my dad’s, so we’ve been kind of running 100 miles per hour since,” Leal grins.
The next order of business was to eliminate red 40 from her ingredients, feedback she received from her growing TikTok community. It was back to testing a new formula again, this time with attempts to replace the artificial dye with natural hues from beetroot and cranberry powder. Leal ultimately settled on using hibiscus, which is known for its glowing red color as well as its puckery tang that is a natural complement to chamoy. Hibiscus is also frequently used in Mexican cuisine, so the pairing just made sense.
“I think sharing our business on TikTok and on Instagram and growing it that way has allowed for a feedback loop that is quick and effective,” she explains. “After seeing that very valid feedback, I realized there’s this whole audience that we’re not tapping into by not changing this about our product.”
Changing the recipe worked. I Love Chamoy is currently available for pre-order, after selling out several times, and Leal’s next run has jumped from initial 750 bottles to 15,000 bottles. People all over TikTok reshare videos of themselves trying her product—with fruit, in micheladas, atop cucumber. Even people who have never tried chamoy before are discovering different ways to use it.
“Someone was like, ‘I didn’t know what to do with it, but I marinated shrimp and it was amazing,’” Leal says. “I’m not going to tell people how to eat it, but I love that they are finding new, creative ways.”
The core of Leal’s story is family. Everyone is involved: her mom functions like a VP of operations, constantly checking the sales. Her sister has a finance background and is the keeper of the QuickBooks. Her dad has become the face of I Love Chamoy, and has even been recognized from the TikToks he’s been featured on.
And Leal, of course, is the brains behind it all, running a positive TikTok community that shows the transparency behind her entrepreneurial journey and all of the behind-the-scenes work it takes to create a family-owned business.
“We’ve never had a hobby where we’re all together and so involved,” she says. “That’s really been the cherry on top of this whole thing.”