The versatile tortilla
By Matthew Gray
Advertiser staff writer
They made the flat flour- and corn-cakes by hand, but within a couple of years customers were asking why they couldn't buy fresh tortillas in the supermarket. One day in 1994, the phone rang and it was the Kapa'a Safeway asking if the Maciases could supply the store. By the end of that year, the Macias family was in the tortilla business; a short while later, they moved the plant to O'ahu to facilitate statewide distribution.
They had discovered what lots of others have realized: Tortillas aren't just, as Ysidro Macias says, "the most important food in Mexican culture," but a food with, as they say in the music business, great crossover potential.
"The real growth is occurring because the youth of all races are familiar with and enjoy eating tortillas," said Ysidro Macias.
Thanks in part to the likes of Taco Bell and Frito-Lay, Americans love tortillas and tortilla chips.
In fact, tortillas or "wraps" as the modern-speak calls them are more popular today in the United States than all other familiar ethnic breads, including bagels, English muffins and pita bread, making the tortilla business the fastest-growing segment of the baking industry worldwide.
In addition to Sinaloa, the Islands are home to another tortilla manufacturer, Big Island Mexican Foods, near Hilo on the island of Hawai'i.Both companies are automated mom-and-pop (madre y padre?) operations. (Arturo's Mexican Foods has their tortillas made on the Mainland to their specifications, then shipped here chilled.)
Tortillas are a type of flat bread made from either corn or wheat.They can be baked in the oven, steamed, grilled, fried, or heated in a microwave or toaster.
The Tortilla Industry Association estimates that global consumption accounted for more than $6 billion worth of tortillas in 1998.That figure does not include tortilla chips, which in themselves have become an enormous worldwide market.
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In addition to the standard Mexican fare, tortillas often serve as substitutes for traditional breads, wrapping everything from hot dogs to scrambled eggs, and even serving as a base for pizza-like preparations. Tortillas can serve as edible food scoops, be toasted and topped with salad, or served hot and plain.The emergence of sandwich wraps (recipes using flour tortillas with a wide variety of fillings) has helped to bridge the transition of tortillas from primarily ethnic recipes to mainstream dishes.
Respondents to a 1999 industry-financed market survey indicated that the growth rate of corn tortilla sales has surpassed that of flour tortillas. However, the flour tortilla still outsells the corn version 4-to-1.
Here's a look at two Island tortilla makers:
Sinaloa Hawaiian Tortillas
Owned by Ysidro R. Macias, 56 (from Soledad, Calif.), and his wife of 31 years, Veronica, 53 (from Venice, Calif.), this business is named for the state in northern Mexico from which Veronica's family originally came.
Their son Quetzalcoatl, 28, helped Ysidro start the company; and two other sons, Xicotencatl, 26, and Tonatiuh, 22, also are involved with the business.(Ysidro and Veronica named their sons after ancient Aztec gods.I've got to believe they all enjoy a sweet laugh at those of us attempting to correctly pronounce the names of their children.)
The company employs 20 people at its Mapunapuna plant and supplies tortillas to big box stores such as Costco and Sam's Club, as well as some military commissaries and supermarkets such as Safeway, Foodland, Star Market, Big Save, and KTA.The state has contracted Sinaloa to provide fresh tortillas to all public schools.
"To Mexicans, tortillas are our staple grain, like the way locals eat white rice," said Ysidro, a former attorney who runs a tight business ship. "However, the Mexican population in Hawai'i is too small to sustain a tortilla business. Thankfully, everyone seems to enjoy tortillas in one form or another."
He said he thinks tortilla sales will only increase as today's young burrito/wrap/taco-eating crowd age and continue to incorporate tortillas into their diets. That increase already is taking place, as sales for Sinaloa have grown between 25 and 45 percent per year for the past three years.
Sinaloa makes several different tortillas in a variety of sizes: yellow, white and blue corn tortillas, along with regular, spinach and chili-tomato flour versions. They run two manufacturing lines at their facility, a fully automated flour line which makes 700-800 dozen per hour; and a corn line which can make 1,200 dozen per hour.
Veronica is the engine at the core of the business. "We do things from our gut," she said. "The start-up of our business was, in effect, 'spirit' kicking us in the okole and saying to us, 'Hey, I'm talking to you ... what are you waiting for?'All of this was accomplished on total faith.Not one of us had any kind of business or restaurant experience previously. It's all about love.Choose ingredients with love, cook with love, and nourish the bodies and souls of those around you.That is the Sinaloa secret of success."
Big Island Mexican Foods
This operation is owned and operated by Emma (originally from Mexico City) and Manuel Flores (from Southern California), ages 52 and 66, respectively.They've been married for six years and have run this company for the past four, having purchased what was formerly Big Island Tortillarilla in Kea'au.
Emma Flores is in charge of distribution; Manuel handles the production side. "Our original idea was to open a burrito shop, but we were told that the tortilla company would be up for sale in one year because the owner planned on moving to the Mainland," recalled Manuel Flores."So we waited it out, and now, four years later, we have three employees and run an operation that supplies four different types of corn tortillas and a mild salsa for restaurants, mainly on the Kona side of the Big Island.Our sales have increased by 50 percent each year so far during the past four years."
In addition to their restaurant accounts, Big Island Mexican Foods supplies supermarkets such as Safeway, Sack 'N Save, KTA, and a host of smaller neighborhood grocers.
Their tortillas (6 1/2 inches in diameter) vary in thickness, depending on how they're to be used. For instance, the thickest weighs in at 12 ounces per dozen and is often used for hard (crunchy) tacos; the 9-ounce variety is most often used for soft tacos.
The company has an automated tortilla machine that cranks out 54 tortillas per minute, and each run is about six hours, working out to about 1,620 dozen every production day. Their tortillas sell out, Flores said, and stores are re-supplied every third day.
The secret to their success?
It's the tortillas themselves, Manuel Flores said. "It all comes down to people really enjoying our products.Chips and salsa are everywhere; even in London, Australia and Japan."
Don't freeze or refrigerate tortillas, advises maker
Tortilla maker Ysidro Macias of Honolulu has strong opinions on the care and handling of the fresh tortillas his family makes and sells in resealable plastic bags.
The tortillas shouldn't be frozen, unless you're going to hold them for months. They shouldn't be refrigerated, unless you're not likely to use them up in the course of a week (the refrigerator's chill will dry the tortillas out). And they shouldn't be heated with food inside of them; they'll absorb moisture and grow soggy.
The right approach, then, is to buy only the number of tortillas you plan to use in the course of a few days.
Keep them, zipped up, in a cool spot on the kitchen counter or in a cupboard. And heat them just before filling them, to release the flour or corn flavor and give them the right, slightly crisp and chewy texture.
To heat tortillas:
- With a gas range, turn burner on medium and place the tortilla directly on the burner cover. Turn tortilla after 5-10 seconds; flour tortillas will puff a little.
- On an electric stove, place a dry frying pan over medium heat and heat until hot. Place tortilla in pan and heat 10-15 seconds per side.
Tortilla Dessert Torte
- 10 8-inch flour tortillas
- 16 ounces low-fat cream cheese (at room temperature)
- 1 tablespoon grated orange peel
- 2 tablespoons orange juice concentrate
- 1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
- 2 tablespoons cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- Fresh strawberries (sliced and tossed with 1 tablespoon sugar)
Place cream cheese, orange peel, orange juice concentrate, brown sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon in a bowl and beat with a fork until blended. Spread nine tortillas with cream cheese mixture.
Stack the nine tortillas in a springform pan. Top with remaining tortilla, brush with melted butter and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon.
Bake in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until fork inserted into center comes out clean. Cut into wedges and top with strawberries.