Carbondale business is ‘a tale of two tortillas’
January 21, 2013
CARBONDALE – Mario Lara stood in front of the humming tortilla press. Each time it rose, he used his fingertips to snatch a paper-thin flour tortilla from its hot surface, and threw another lump of dough onto the griddle just before the machine thumped shut again.
Lara, 32, then tossed the pressed tortillas onto a rotating burner, where they were heated, flipped and ejected by a conveyor belt, directly into the hands of Manuel Ruiz.
Ruiz, 47, is the owner of Tortilleria La Roca in Carbondale, a tortilla factory and Mexican restaurant, 780 Highway 133.
On a recent day, he was in charge of bagging. As he sealed sack after clear plastic sack of piping hot tortillas with twist ties, his 67-year-old father, Jerardo Ruiz, stood across the room stirring a deep fryer full of homemade corn chips.
Nearby, Manuel’s brother Gumaro, 37, was preparing to stuff a bin full of roasted Anaheim chiles with pepper jack cheese, and then deep-fry them as well.
A case full of Mexican pastries stood near the front, next to another packed with homemade pork rinds, or carnitas. There were homemade salsas and tamales, mild white cheeses, and dried peppers for intrepid home cooks. A menu advertised tortas, tacos and other Mexican standbys.
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Several pinatas full of candy hung from the ceiling, swinging faintly.
It was a typical day at Tortilleria La Roca, a 14-year-old family business that sells 7,000 tortillas daily to customers and restaurants throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.
Ruiz started the business in 1998 after noting that a growing number of Latinos were migrating to the area. He’s a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico who was born in Chihuahua and spent much of his childhood in Hotchkiss, where his father worked for several sheep farms.
“When I took my U.S. citizenship test, I had all these questions in front of me, but I got along with the officer giving the test, and he didn’t even ask me any of them,” he said.
Ruiz has two daughters, Julisa, 10, and Mayett, 20. Both are U.S. citizens.
With his mixed pedigree, Ruiz moves easily between the Anglo and Latino cultures of the Roaring Fork Valley. When he wanted to learn to make tortillas professionally, he returned to Chihuahua for training, then bought the bulk of his equipment from suppliers in California.
He has experience as a prep cook in several Aspen restaurants, and used his connections there to win tortilla contracts when La Roca opened.
“Chefs were always saying that they wanted everything fresh,” he remembers.
Today, La Roca sells tortillas to restaurants such as the Hickory House, Pacifica, The Little Nell, and the Village Smithy in Carbondale.
Although Ruiz started La Roca with the Latino market in mind, he’s won the hearts – and stomachs – of a wider swath of the population.
Today he says that more than half of his customers are Anglos. As proof he cites the fact that flour tortillas sell slightly better than corn. Anglo-Americans prefer flour, he said, while corn tortillas are a dietary staple for many Latinos.
On one recent afternoon, most of the people who filtered in and out of the shop were Anglos. Chris Tedstone of Carbondale stopped by for a slice of Mexican cheesecake. A vegetarian, he wasn’t interested in the various meat entrees on offer, though he said his wife is from Latin America and shops at La Roca regularly for other things.
“Awesome cheesecake,” he said. “I wish I had known about this place earlier.”
George Frank and Deborah Smith of Basalt had a meal in mind when they entered the shop – chicken enchiladas. They bought a bag of corn tortillas and some salsa verde, which Ruiz pulled from a long white cooler behind the cash register.
The cooler is used to keep the tortillas warm until the moment of sale, a neat trick that makes it challenging for some customers to avoid wolfing one down in the parking lot on the way back to the car.
“Would you like them warm?” is a standard question posed to customers, one almost always answered with a resounding “Yes.”
“The food is delicious. It’s comfort food in this kind of weather,” says Frank. “The people are friendly, they smile, they appreciate your business.”
“We don’t feel weird or self-conscious coming in here,” said Smith, noting that it can sometimes be nerve wracking to be the only non-Spanish speaker in a Mexican restaurant, a common condition for the valley’s Anglo culinary pioneers.
Tortilleria La Roca has six full- time employees, and most of them are members of Ruiz’s immediate family.
In addition to Manuel Ruiz’s wife, Ana, his father, and his brother Gumaro, Ruiz has two other brothers and a sister who also work at La Roca. Everyone knows how to operate every machine, Ruiz said, and family members rotate to keep things interesting.
Tortillas are a low-margin product, which lends itself to a business model where family members are often around to help out.
As it happens, the only other tortilleria in the region is also a family affair. Two brothers, Alfredo and Raul Salazar, run Tortilleria Salazar in Rifle with the help of their wives and Alfredo’s son Jose.
The Salazar family bought the business in 2006, and also owns a mobile taco stand, along with a butcher shop and bakery in Gypsum.
Like the Ruiz family at La Roca, the Salazars are originally from Chihuahua, Mexico.
As at La Roca, nearly half the clientele served at Salazar is Anglo, the other half Latino.
And like La Roca, Salazar benefits from a family member who can easily traverse the ethnic and cultural landscape of western Colorado, mingling with white and Latinos alike.
Jose Salazar, 20, started in the family business soon after graduating from Rifle High School. He speaks fluent English, and helps his older family members negotiate business deals and serve English-speaking customers.
Salazar said his family sold almost twice as many tortillas four years ago, during the height of Rifle’s natural gas boom, as they do now.
Still, he said, “people still have to eat,” and business has remained good.
So good, in fact, that the Salazars are considering expanding their business into another state. Jose would not say which, except to hint, “there are not many tortillas there.”
Given how good they taste when they’re fresh, you might think that tortillas from La Roca contained some unhealthy additive or secret larding agent, but such is the alchemy of water and corn: La Roca’s corn tortillas contain nothing but those two ingredients.
The flour variety is more delicate and complex to make, requiring water, flour, salt, shortening and baking powder.
For both types, the process begins when ingredients are combined in a mixer, then sliced up by a press into workable balls of dough.
La Roca has a corn tortilla machine that largely assembles that product – 30 pound batches of batter, or masa, go in one end, and tortillas come out the other ready for bagging.
But flour tortillas require more work. After being divvied into workable bits of batter, the dough is put into a humidifier to soften it up, then hammered into paper-thin sheets by a mechanical press.
A worker then throws those sheets onto the flour machine, a descending corkscrew platform underpinned by burners that cook the tortillas through. The machine flips the tortillas continually as they descend before spitting them onto a conveyor belt and into the hands of a waiting bagger.
The constant thrumming of so many machines makes La Roca warm and comforting in the winter, though Lara, the press operator, says it can get up to 110 degrees or hotter during the summer months.
“It does help me lose weight,” he says, patting his belly.