Luis Fernandez remembers the first time he tried Jarritos. It was the mid-80s and he was standing in a Los Angeles warehouse with one of his customers who handed him a room-temperature bottle of the tamarind flavor.

It wasn’t quite his favorite.

“I had never seen (Jarritos) in my life,” Fernandez said. “He opened up the bottle, I tasted it and said, ‘What? You want this? You really want this?’ He said to bring him anything I get. I went back to Mexico and started looking for the product.”

A couple of decades later, Fernandez is the CEO of Novamex, an El Paso company that owns the Jarritos brand and distributes the popular Mexican soft drink to 39 countries. Novamex is headquartered in Downtown El Paso and employs about 1,000 people at its facilities in both the United States and Mexico.

Last week, Fernandez sat down with Carlos Martínez-Vela, president and CEO of the Hub of Human Innovation, for a Pioneer Conversation discussion on Novamex, entrepreneurship in the borderland, and market trends for the food and beverage industry.

Jarritos are ubiquitous in El Paso, sometimes seen in colorful rows in a corner store fridge or accompanied by a plate of barbacoa tacos at taco joints. And they have become increasingly popular across the country as Novamex has spread the brand’s message.

On the Paisano side of the Sotoa Building, where Novamex has its corporate headquarters, there’s a massive, pixelated mural of Jarritos bottles by an El Paso street artist Federico Archuleta, known as El Federico.

Jarritos is a staple in the multibillion-dollar carbonated beverage market and competes with conglomerates like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper. The Jarritos brand was founded in Mexico in 1950 by Francisco Hill, and Novamex began distributing Jarritos in the United States in 1986.

Fernandez said the Jarritos brand now accounts for half of Novamex’s sales, and the mandarin flavor is the most popular. He added that in some markets, like California, the mandarin flavor often outsells offerings like Crush and Sunkist, which are distributed by Keurig Dr. Pepper.

Novamex also owns the Yucatán orchards where the mandarins used in Jarritos are grown.

Fernandez said Jarritos used to be bottled in Juárez, but that operation moved to Nuevo Laredo and Mexicali in 2005 because rising oil prices made it more costly to ship the product.

“For products that aren’t very expensive like ours, we work on pennies,” Fernandez said. “If you’re very far away from consumers, it gets expensive.”

The first product Novamex distributed was its own soda brand, called Tipp, Fernandez said. Then Novamex began distributing Sangria Señoral, a carbonated grape juice drink the company now owns.

Fernandez said the company had a hard time distributing Sangria Señoral because of low brand name recognition.

“I started with a lot of problems and with a loan from our corporate company in Juárez for $60,000. I spent everything in marketing that year,” Fernandez said. “I lost out. I had an inventory of 20,000 cases in our El Paso warehouse, and I couldn’t sell a case.”

He said he then came upon a bit of luck and found a distributor willing to take Sangria Señoral up to the Chicago and Los Angeles markets.

“Then I found out through a Los Angeles customer that I was raising the price of Sangria,” Fernandez said. “He said I needed to do something else and asked me to bring him Jarritos.”

That request led to Fernandez tasting his first bottle of Jarritos, and to Novamex partnering with the brand’s owners to start distributing the product in the United States.

Fernandez said Novamex now distributes 100 million unit cases — equivalent to about 2.4 billion bottles — per year. Yes, billions.

And the brand is still growing. Fernandez said Novamex is getting ready to introduce a 100% natural version of Jarritos to the European market, where he said consumers are more aware of and willing to pay for natural offerings.

Novamex has acquired and distributes a number of other brands and products, including Steaz iced teas, C2O coconut water and Sidral Mundet soda. Fernandez added that there are more products and acquisitions in Novamex’s near future.

Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105.