Carlos Alcantara was looking forward to spreading out into the empty seat next to him on the red-eye from San Francisco to Miami. Then a woman boarded at the last minute, introduced herself and took the seat next to him. His plans suddenly changed. Only he had no idea by how much.
The two chatted throughout the flight, and by the time the plane landed, they had already made plans to see each other again. The chance meeting led to marriage two years later and a professional partnership as well. Together, Carlos and Shanda Alcantara formed Chalaco Corp., a manufacturer and importer of aha!, a line of marinades, hot sauces and pepper pastes from Peru, Carlos’ home country.
“These are new flavors for the American palate—peppers that are mostly about flavors rather than heat,” says Carlos, a 1991 M.B.A. graduate. “When the time came to name our product line we selected and trademarked the name aha! since the Peruvian term for chili peppers is pronounced ‘aaahee.’ ”
Of course, both brought extensive experience to this almost 6-year-old venture. After a 20-year career at Procter and Gamble, Alcantara was recruited by the Clorox Co. to oversee sales in Latin America. He later became president of Penzoil-Quaker State International Corp., a position that made him one of a few Hispanic Americans to head a multi-national company. Meanwhile, Shanda, a hotelier, restaurateur and gourmet cook, traveled to Peru where she took classes at the Lima Culinary Institute. After positive feedback from friends, the couple decided to market Peruvian flavors to the U.S.
The company, which has operations in Las Vegas, California and Peru, holds cooking contests with a culinary trip to Peru as the prize and helps improve the lives of the country’s poor farmers. “We enjoy the fact that we can be together a lot more than if we worked in different businesses,” Carlos says. “We get to spend our work time together—we actually enjoy this.”