Ah, the humble tortilla. It’s been around for thousands of years – a soft, pliable flat bread that was a cornerstone of the Aztec diet.
And now it’s the fastest-growing segment of the baking industry. Last year, tortilla sales reached $12 billion, dethroning white sandwich bread as America’s No. 1 choice for turning meat, vegetables and/or condiments into finger food.
How did that happen? Simple demographics is part of the reason. The Hispanic population in the U.S. has swelled and so has the interest in Mexican food.
“What we have seen in the industry is a lot of innovation in how tortillas are used and what they are being made out of,” says Jim Kabbani, chief executive officer of the Tortilla Industry Association in Arlington, Va.
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Tortillas have become a fusion food.
Helen Chavez-Hansen, president of La Tapatia Tortilleria in Fresno
To better meet consumer demands for a healthier product, tortilla makers have introduced whole wheat tortillas and low-carb/high-fiber tortillas. There are also non-GMO, organic and gluten-free tortillas.
Also popular are home-style tortillas that look like your grandmother made them and par-baked tortillas for those who want a more authentic, made-from-scratch experience.
Several grocery store chains have also created mini tortilla factories inside their stores to deliver fresh tortillas to their customers.
“As more and more stores start producing their own tortillas, you are going to see more experimentation reflected in their products,” Kabbani says.
450 tortilla makers in the United States
At Vallarta Supermarkets in Fresno, shoppers can buy corn tortillas flavored with red chili, cactus, jalapeno and blue corn. Every day, workers package the fresh, still-warm tortillas into plastic bags. They are so fresh, you can see the condensation forming on the inside of the bag.
The craving for fresh tortillas is so strong that a company recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for a tortilla maker, called the Flatev. On social media, it’s been called a Keurig for tortillas. Creators of the device say it can bake a tortilla in less than two minutes.
Kabbani says he isn’t surprised at the popularity of tortillas given their simplicity and ease of use.
Nationwide, there are about 450 tortilla makers who are creating products in varying sizes, styles and flavors. You can find kosher tortillas or tortillas made out of lentils. And as the wrap trend grows, tortillas are being made out of pesto garlic, tomato basil and spinach.
Helen Chavez-Hansen, president of La Tapatia Tortilleria in Fresno, has seen tremendous growth in her company and consumer’s appetite for tortillas.
Founded in 1946, the company has grown from a small-time factory to one that generates $30 million-plus in sales and employs 170 people.
La Tapatia’s corn and flour tortilla products are sold throughout the western U.S. and overseas. The company has made significant inroads into several countries, including China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and Dubai.
The company’s Belmont Avenue factory can fill 30 to 40 shipping containers of product each month for its foreign customers.
In China, a package of La Tapatia’s “Old Fashioned” chips were shown being eaten by an actress in the popular television drama Beijing Youth. Maylinn Xu, senior export coordinator for La Tapatia, says that after the episode aired, the tortilla chips shot to the No. 1 spot in the chips category in China.
Chavez-Hansen says she is excited about the future and the potential for growth, both domestic and worldwide.
“Tortillas have become a fusion food,” she says. “And everybody wants them.”
Valley tortilla makers
The central San Joaquin Valley is home to many tortilla makers, including these that sell freshly made tortillas at their locations:
La Tapatia Tortilleria, 104 E. Belmont Ave., Fresno, 559-441-1030
El Toro Tortilleria, 4507 E. Tulare St., Fresno, 559-253-1200
Vallarta Supermarkets, 3850 N Cedar Ave, Fresno, 559-476-3070
El Super, 3190 E Tulare Ave, Fresno, 559-367-0285
Mi Rancho Tortillas, 801 Purvis Ave., Clovis, 559-299-3183
Jalisco Corn Tortilla Factory, 516 E. 7th St., Hanford, 559-582-1942
Dos Hermanos Tortilleria, 1104 E. Batavia Court, Tulare, 559-684-0402