When Fiesta Guadalajara suddenly and unexpectedly went out of business a few years back, it left its local tortilla customers holding the bag. The frozen
bag, that is. For years, the Cleveland-based, minority-owned business produced fresh corn tortillas, selling their goods to pretty much every independent Mexican eatery in town. Fiesta Guadalajara's departure meant that local restaurateurs, Mexican food fans, and Hispanic families were forced to make do with non-fresh alternatives.
But, as they say, One man's loss is another man's opportunity. Or, in the case of Leticia Ortiz: another woman's opportunity.
"When Fiesta Guadalajara closed, we decided to open," explains Ortiz. "We saw the need for fresh tortillas in Cleveland."
Along with her fiancé, José Andrade, who trained in Guadalajara, Mexico, Ortiz launched La Bamba Tortilleria in some rented space in Ohio City. Open for less than one year, the minority-owned start-up already has captured much of the business left behind by the closure of Fiesta, which had been forced to switch to out-of-town suppliers.
"There is a big difference in taste and texture between fresh and frozen tortillas," explains Ortiz. "We Mexicans are used to buying our tortillas fresh, sometimes two or three times a day."
Chef Roberto Rodriguez, who runs the popular West Side Market stand Orale!
, could not agree more. Rodriguez was one of the first wholesale customers to make the switch from non-fresh, non-local tortillas to those crafted by La Bamba. And, the chef says, he was eager to do so.
"It is like buying bread fresh from the bakery versus the stuff from grocery stores," notes Rodriguez, who purchases both corn and flour varieties for use in his Mexican prepared foods. Having a local producer means the chef can place an order one day and pick it up the next, providing products of unrivaled freshness and flavor. "Even my customers that didn't know I switched have been asking me why the chips taste so good."
One of La Bamba's newest converts is Eric Williams, chef and owner of Momocho
in Ohio City. Forced like everyone else to use products originating elsewhere, Williams says he was happy to learn of a fresh, local alternative. "Preservatives change not only the smell but also the taste of tortillas," Williams explains. "The tooth, the texture, the color, the smell -- everything about [La Bamba's] tortillas are dead-on. We are looking forward to working with them."
Williams says that he learned about the tortilleria from Ortiz herself, who cold-called the chef at his restaurant, delivering an assortment of her products.
Located in about 4,000 square feet of space in the Culinary Market Building, a nondescript warehouse behind the West Side Market, La Bamba's operation is invisible to the passerby. But when the wind blows just right, lucky pedestrians are greeted to the most intoxicating aroma: the smell of fresh-cooked corn tortillas.
Inside, pallets and pallets of corn flour wait to be blended into masa, the dough from which tortillas are made. A lengthy Rube Goldberg-like contraption moves the dough from one end of the room to the other, transforming it along the way from raw dough to fully cooked tortillas. Over the course of 50-odd feet, the machine rolls the dough flat, stamps out raw rounds, roasts them, cools them, and plops them onto the table for stacking and packing. If a person didn't know better, the process looks utterly foolproof.
Wrong, says Ortiz. "I thought it was very easy to make a tortilla, but it's not," she says. "It is like when you bake bread. Everybody uses the same ingredients, but it's how you use them. You have to figure out the right recipe for production."
Make that recipes
. Currently, La Bamba produces both corn and flour tortillas in various shapes and formulas. One variety is used for enchiladas, another for tacos, and another still will be fried by customers into chips.
In addition to sales, Ortiz says she currently handles administration, purchasing, accounting… "I am doing everything except production."
"It was very hard at the beginning," she says. "We got everything by our own pockets; friends and family loaned us money to get going, and they came and helped us."
The company has since grown to four full-time staffers, but even that number can't keep up with the increased demand. In addition to Mexican restaurant accounts like Cozumel, Mi Pueblo and
Nuevo Acapulco, La Bamba's tortillas are sold retail at Orale!, Mexican groceries and soon, says Ortiz, Giant Eagle.
Ortiz says that she has applied for a small-business loan in hopes of purchasing more equipment and expanding her business. An additional 4,000 square feet is available at their present location, making expansion a breeze. If that happens, she says, the company roster will likely double in size, which has been the goal since Day One.
"One of the reasons we decided to open in Cleveland is to provide local jobs," Ortiz says.
Ortiz is thankful for the support she has received from the Cleveland community. Producing a quality product will only get a business so far, she says. Customers still must buy into you, your business, and your mission.
"When you are selling a product you like and feel sure about, it will sell itself," Ortiz says. "People like fresh, yes. But they like to support local too."
As the owner of an independent restaurant, Eric Williams knows the importance of supporting the little guy. "We want to stay local," he says. "It's better for us to buy from her than bring it in from Detroit."
For a video of La Bamba's tortilla machine in action, click here
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Photography by Bob Perkoski