When Jamie Mammano, chef and owner of five Boston restaurants, visited a Tijuana tortilla bakery with his father-in-law in the summer of 2010, he had a revelation. The scene — a big, open room crowded with bags and vats of corn, three blasting ovens, and bustling workers — looked chaotic. But at the ends of the operation’s conveyor belts, three women in aprons meticulously packaged the tortillas in tissue paper.
“They wrapped them like a little gift,” Mammano said.
Beyond being charmed by the combination of industry and artistry, the experience gave him an idea: “I thought it was a good business opportunity.”
So he founded Tortilleria La Niña, an Everett company that makes corn tortillas without preservatives. After just more than a year in operation, he said, the fledgling firm is poised to double its revenue by late spring, to between $50,000 and $60,000 a month.
Using the Mexican model of small-scale production and hand-packing, Tortilleria La Niña employees make 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of corn tortillas and tortilla chips a week for sale to 30 accounts, including the Boloco restaurant chain, Gillette Stadium, and food truck businesses. The goal is to get to 10,000 pounds a week, and start selling to retail outlets such as grocery stores.
But Mammano, 53, who owns Mistral, Sorellina, Teatro, and Mooo.... in Boston, and L’Andana in Burlington, said it hasn’t been easy to get this far. Because the products contain nothing more than corn and a minuscule amount of ground limestone, there isn’t much margin for error. The balance has to be just right.
“It’s artistry,” he said. “Tortilla baking is so much harder than opening a restaurant.”
The business has a personal angle, too. Mammano’s wife, Monica, who came to the United States from Mexico to attend college before meeting her husband, had long complained to him about the region’s lack of fragrant, fresh tortillas like the kind she ate back home. Tortilleria La Niña, or Little Girl, is named in honor of their 10-year-old daughter, Paola.
The company’s production manager, Tobe Armendariz, is from Mexico. Others on the eight-person staff are either Mexican or South or Central American.
Hidden behind a graffiti-marked gray door on a busy Everett street, the plant resembles a smaller version of the Tijuana site Mammano toured. In one corner are bags of white corn from an Illinois farm. In the center, corn and ground limestone cook and soak in vats. A worker stands next to a simple machine that uses volcanic stones to grind corn into a paste, or masa. On the other side of the room, a small machine called an extruder rolls the masa into dough, and stamps out 6-inch circles that pass through a 450-degree oven.
The corn cooks in the afternoon, steeps overnight in the cooking water, and is strained and rinsed before being shoveled into the grinder. The baking lasts 35 to 40 seconds, and then the tortillas march down the conveyor belt to be stacked and packed by hand. “Basically, it takes 24 hours from start to finish,” Mammano said.
The company started in Chelsea in the fall of 2011 with a retail store as well as a manufacturing facility. Mammano and Brandon Child soon decided to close the store, which wasn’t doing well, in favor of concentrating on wholesale and a larger working space in Everett, where it moved last March.
In the beginning, tortillas were hand-pressed and each tortilla chip hand-fried. There were frustrations right off, such as trying to figure out the right proportions, dealing with varying humidity and heat, and finding workers who understood what Mammano was attempting. But “when the employees first tasted them,’’ he said, “they started crying.” That, said Child, a former chef at Mistral who oversees the business for Mammano, “was the turning point.” The workers, most from countries where tortillas are a diet staple, knew the company had created the real thing.
Fresh tortilla chips, made from La Nina tortillas, sprinkled with sea salt, fried, and hand-packed on site, have gained in popularity so rapidly that they now average 65 to 70 percent of sales. Some customers order ready-made tortillas; others buy masa dough to roll out and cook their own tortillas. Customers range from taco truck operations in New York and Boston to the Painted Burro restaurant in Somerville, El Pelon Taqueria in Boston, and the Boston Harbor Hotel.
Joe Cassinelli, co-owner of the Painted Burro, said his Mexican and Latin cuisine restaurant uses 20 to 30 pounds of tortillas a day from Tortilleria La Niña. He also buys chips and masa from the company. “It’s the most authentic product you can find on the market,” Cassinelli said.
Other brands the restaurant tried had an aftertaste and a “slippery” texture, he said. “When you warm these, they taste only of corn.”
There are several other tortilla manufacturers in the area, larger operations with different manufacturing methods. For instance, Maria & Ricardo’s, a brand of family-owned Harbar LLC in Canton, also doesn’t use artificial ingredients or preservatives, but includes guar gum as a binding agent, according to marketing manager Gina Cravedi. She said the company sells an average of 105,000 packages of tortillas each month. Its flour tortilla far outsells the corn version, she said.
Tortillas made by another local company, Cinco de Mayo in Chelsea, contain preservatives that help to make them shelf stable.
Mammano and Child are in the process of developing retail packaging for 8-ounce packs of fresh tortillas that would sell for $1.80 each. “Our price point is competitive to Mission [a national brand out of Texas] in some markets,” he said.
Still, not every critic is always completely satisfied with the product. Recently, one said the tortillas were too thin, something Mammano said might have been causing them to dry out. The problem was solved by slightly increasing the thickness.
Good thing he listened. The taste-tester who complained, Irene Barba, was not only right, she is Mammano’s mother-in-law.Alison Arnett can be reached at Arnett.firstname.lastname@example.org.