Tortilla makers' world is flat

U.S. father-son company prepares to export their variously flavored product to Mexico

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November 09, 2006|By Alana Semuels | Alana Semuels,Los Angeles Times

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- The food they sell may be flat, yet Herman Jacobs and his son Brian say that sales are anything but.

The two own Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas, which sells flavored varieties of the ancient staple to retailers and restaurants in the United States and around the world. In 11 years of business, the Jacobses watched as diners went through the low-carb craze, the wrap craze and the grains craze, each driving tortilla sales higher and higher.

"People are using tortillas for more and more applications," said Brian Jacobs, 41. "We're really gaining momentum."

A growing Hispanic population and the popularity of grab-and-go foods have contributed to the tortilla's rise. A 2002 study by the Tortilla Industry Association found tortillas holding about a third of the $4 billion-a-year U.S. bread market, slightly behind white bread's slice of the industry.

"Competing with white bread is really kind of a big deal," said Roberto Quinones, executive director of the association, which moved in January from Dallas to McLean, Va., with plans for becoming "more professional."

Tumaro's gobbled up its corner of the industry by developing offbeat flavors for a food that usually comes in just two varieties, corn or flour. The Jacobses have tried flavors such as spinach, Indian curry, tomato, pineapple-banana and Caesar salad for their tortillas.

"American consumers are flavor junkies. They like their options," said Bill Briwa, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif.

Briwa said an interest in global cuisine has increased the popularity of burritos, quesadillas and flatbread. People are tired of sandwiches, he said, and see wraps as more exotic.

Tumaro's sells 180 million tortillas a year to 21,000 supermarkets nationwide, as well as to universities and restaurants. The company's annual sales range from $10 million to $30 million. Its honey wheat and multigrain offerings were voted "best tortilla" in the United States by Men's Health magazine in 2003 and its products garnered "best wrap" honors from Health magazine in 2006.

The company also sells to the United Arab Emirates and will begin exporting to Mexico in January.

"It's like selling bagels to Israel," said Herman Jacobs, 71, who was previously known for helping build Hain Pure Foods with his brother Jerald.

The brothers increased sales at the natural food giant that their father, George, bought from Harold Hain in 1953. Sales increased from $100,000 that year to $45 million in 1982. But after Jerald died of a brain tumor in 1980, Herman said he sold the business because he didn't have the heart to continue.

After retiring, Herman Jacobs began to get bored. In 1995, he decided to buy a small frozen burrito company to introduce his sons, Brian and Jason, to running a business.

When they tasted a few of their frozen burritos, they noticed that the tortillas were often cracked, dry and had an acidic taste. They decided to make their own, first adding honey to the recipe and then branching out into different flavors.

They make their tortillas low in fat as well as kosher, with organic ingredients to cater to health-conscious consumers. The company emphasizes that its tortillas are free of trans fats, and its low-carb multigrain tortillas offer a nutritious option to those accustomed to corn tortillas. But initially, no one was buying.

"We had a lot of rejection in the beginning," Herman Jacobs said. "People liked the concept, but it didn't really sink in."

In 1997, Vons supermarkets gave Tumaro's a three-month trial. Herman Jacobs would hover near the tortilla displays, watching to see if anyone was buying.

Customers liked the tortillas, even though they were more expensive than traditional versions. Sales boomed when the company began emphasizing that their tortillas were more versatile and nutritious than traditional ones.

"People kept seeing tortillas as Mexican food," Brian Jacobs said. "We saw it more as a bread replacement."

Alana Semuels writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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