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By Rony Contreras
At Lupe’s Tortillería, the smell of corn fills the air, and the loud, churning noises of machinery make it hard to hear.
Five days a week, the machines produce fresh tortillas. Fidel Morales, the owner, and his long-time employee, Félix Márquez, mix water and lime with corn in large troughs to create masa, or dough, which is cooked and then shaped by the machine into tortillas. Once baked to perfection, the tortillas are shot two by two onto a conveyor belt. Morales and Márquez grab and stack the cooled tortillas for packaging.
For over five decades, tortillerías like this have been prominent businesses in Boyle Heights, providing what some consider the most important staple to the Mexican and Central American diets. Many of these businesses, both big and small, are neighborhood institutions that are now being passed from one generation to another.
Competition Leads to Change
With rising competition from national chains and supermarkets, some old establishments are changing the way they do business. Some tortillerías are producing tortillas free of preservatives and lard to meet the demands of a health-conscious era, while others are creating new products to distinguish themselves.
Lupe’s, located near the corner of César Chávez Avenue and Mott Street, mainly sells to discount stores like the 99 Cents store. It makes about 500 packages of corn tortillas daily, a big decrease from past production. Márquez, 65, who has worked there for 15 years, says production has been cut by two-thirds.
When Lupe’s Tortillería first started, the machines ran 12 to 15 hours a day, but now run only about four hours.
“There is a lot of competition from the big stores that have tortillerias today,” Márquez says. “All the stores. Superwest. El Súper market. All the big stores.”
According to the Tortilla Industry Association, tortillas are more popular in the United States than all other ethnic breads, including bagels, English muffins and pita. Over the past decade, tortilla consumption has increased by more than 60 percent and now totals more than $2.5 billion annually.
Making Healthier Tortillas
San Marcos Tortillería opened in 1980 near the corner of First and State streets. Andrés García and his father took over after a previous business closed. Recently San Marcos has changed its recipe, and García says it’s helping his business.
“Everybody wanted to stay away from lard and all that and use vegetable oil. We don’t use any preservatives,” says García. “People like the taste. We’ve been getting more customers now.”
San Marcos sells almost entirely to restaurants. El Sol restaurant owner Adrián Luna buys his tortillas from San Marcos Tortillería because it is located nearby, and he likes to supports neighboring businesses.
While small mom and pop tortillerías have been hit by the competition, larger factories have also had to change the way they do business.
La Princesita, a tortillería that opened in 1973 near the corner of Alma and César Chávez, has expanded and now has six different stores, four in Boyle Heights.
La Princesita produces up to 400,000 tortillas a week and sells mainly to distributors. Francisco Ramírez Jr., who works along with his father, owns several stores around the Eastside, including La Blanquita, which also has a carnicería, a supermarket and a kitchen to prepare food to go.
“Most of our tortillas go to other cities where there really isn’t a lot of tortillas being made,” says Ramírez. Princesita has been making tortillas for more than 50 years, but the company is changing its approach to remain competitive.
“People are seeking out alternatives. We’re seeing that the growth is coming from organic items,” says Ramírez.
He says the company no longer really makes money from corn tortillas. “I’m starting to make new projects, bringing in specialty items into the market, like tortilla strips,” he says.
The father and son have also begun experimenting with tortilla chips and are adding natural red and blue dyes to some products.
“A corn tortilla and a lard tortilla is just that, but if you customize things, then you are offering products that other people are not making,” says Ramírez. “That’s how we’re distinguishing ourselves, and we’re being sought out by other companies because we’re not afraid to do things differently.”