Queens Business Spreads Taste of Mexico Around NYC

When Shauna Page and her boyfriend, Fernando Ruiz first rented the location of what is now the Tortilleria Nixtamal restaurant in 2008, their intention was solely to sell homemade tortillas. They wanted to create tortillas as people do in Mexico – using natural ingredients and no preservatives with actual corn instead of corn flour, Page said.

Now, seven years later, they’ve done that and more. Tortilleria Nixtamal sells more than 5,500 pounds of tortillas a week to about 175 clients, mostly restaurants in New York City, Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts and in August, opened a tortilla production factory on Northern Boulevard in Corona. Meanwhile, the restaurant, which opened in 2009, has its own loyal following of diners who love its authentic, traditional recipes developed with help from family members, trips to Mexico and Internet research.

“People in New York always complain about Mexican food,” said Thibault Courtois, a marketing manager at Queens Theatre in Corona and a regular customer. “Whenever I hear someone complain, I bring them here.”

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While Tortilleria Nixtamal has perfected its recipes, growing the business hasn’t always been easy, said Page. Prior to opening, Page was working as a business consultant and Ruiz, a first-generation Mexican-American, was (and still is) a firefighter with the New York Fire Department. They launched the venture with $40,000 of their own money, much of it from Page’s divestment of her entire 401k.

Money was tight in the early days, said Page, noting they were lucky their landlord didn’t demand rent on time.

“When you start out, you can barely pay rent, gas and electric,” Page said. “For someone who’s always paid their bills on time and then not being able to pay them, it gets stressful.”

They’ve moved on from those early struggles. Now, whatever profit they make is reinvested in the business, Page said, whether that means opening a tortilla factory, buying new machine equipment or adding to their 30 employees.

In 2013, Tortilleria Nixtamal grossed $1 million in revenues and is expecting gross revenues of $3 million in 2015 with the combined profit from the restaurant and tortilla wholesale, said Page.

The restaurant brings in about 40 percent of the revenue and wholesale tortilla sales bring in 60 percent, she said. Once tortilla production has moved entirely to the new factory, Page expects the wholesale to bring in even more revenue.

Existing restaurant clients praise the texture and earthy flavor of Tortilleria Nixtamal’s tortillas.

“The quality of the tortillas are the norm in Mexico but can’t be found in the U.S.,” said client Peyton Powell, the executive chef at Pachanga Patterson in Astoria. “Customers inquire if we make the tortillas in-house because you can taste the difference in quality.”

At Dos Toros, which has several locations in Manhattan and has been using Tortilleria Nixtamal tortillas since 2009, the thicker texture allows the chefs to use just one per taco. That’s a plus, said Marcus Byrd, the restaurant’s marketing coordinator, given that they sell about 3,000 tacos a day. The chefs also like the tortillas, Byrd said, because “they taste corny in a good way.”

All photos and captions by Sarah Ravani/The Ink