Tortillas Come Full Circle
By Lynn Petrak
Whether at breakfast or dinner, patrons of quick-service, ethnic and family casual restaurants are tearing into tortillas.
The popularity of Mexican dishes and wraps in foodservice operations is hardly as flat as a tortilla. Used in increasingly popular ethnic fare such as burritos, quesadillas and fajitas, and as a traditional white bread replacement in sandwiches and breakfast dishes, tortillas have become a staple in restaurants.
For kitchen operators and chefs, tortillas have appeal for many of the same reasons that more retail consumers are stacking up the flour, corn and flavored rounds. The flatbread has been used in different ways over the past several years because they are so versatile and convenient and lend themselves well to a variety formats and pairings. Tortillas also are trendy in the eyes of mainstream consumers, a common pantry item in burgeoning the U.S. Hispanic population’s households, fairly inexpensive to make and stock, and viewed as a better-for-you starch option. Most importantly, they’re tasty.
The use of tortillas is on the upswing, say various sources. According to the Tortilla Industry Association, the category continues to grow across food channels, with 62% of commercial and non-commercial businesses reporting that they use tortillas in their operations. In foodservice, 78% of fine dining restaurants and 74% of casual/family restaurants indicate that they have tortillas on the menu in some way, according to TIA.
Those that include tortillas on their respective menus also attest to its growing appeal among their base of diners, citing a range of factors. A proprietary study from the Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell chain, part of Louisville-based Yum! Brands, found that nearly half of Americans said they prefer food “wrapped in a tortilla” when feeling adventurous.
When Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp. was developing its new Snack Wrap product that rolled out on Aug. 1, the company quickly learned that the tortilla was a foodstuff with impressive appeal.
“It was interesting, because when we did consumer focus groups, tortillas crossed all consumer segments,” says Tracy Stockard, director of menu management for McDonald’s USA. “They are popular in the general market and in Asian, Hispanic and African American markets. The portability is a huge benefit for a tortilla, because people are eating on the go.”
Kathleen Siefert, spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Arby’s, Inc., which developed a line of Market Fresh wraps a couple years ago and continues to add new items to that series, underscores the versatility aspect.
“Portability is the primary reason,” she notes. “From a product development standpoint, you can put anything into them.”
Building On the Ethnic Base
Although it is no longer considered only an ethnic product, the tortilla has centuries-long roots in Hispanic cuisine and remains a core ingredient in many Latino-based menu items. One would be hard-pressed not to find tortillas on a Mexican restaurant menu, as they are used for burritos, tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas and fajitas, among other applications.
Mexican restaurants, especially fast-casual Mexican grill chains that are sometimes referred to as “fresh-Mex,” are expanding both in real estate presence and menu options.
Chipotle Mexican Grill, based in Denver, is one of those fast-growing franchises. The simple menu of burritos and tacos made with corn and flour tortillas allows the company to focus on doing the things it does best, according to spokesman Chris Arnold. Chipotle sources its custom tortillas from one of the nation’s largest tortillerias, Irving, Texas-based Mission Foods, and has, of course, its own particular standards for the proprietary product.
“Our tortillas are fresh, never frozen and have a very authentic Mexican taste,” Arnold notes. “We need for tortillas to be strong. Our burritos are in the neighborhood of 20-oz., so the tortilla gets filled with a lot of really great stuff, but is also soft and pliable, making it easy to roll and eat the big burritos.”
Chipotle sticks to a core menu for a reason, he adds, eschewing hot-for-now items such as spicy flavored or colored tortillas in favor of venerable flour and corn.
“Our menu is decidedly focused, allowing us to do the things we do better than anyone else is doing them,” Arnold adds. “Throughout our 13-year history, we’ve avoided various trends and fads, opting instead to just keep making really great food.”
Other fast-casual Mexican grills have tried-and-true core menus, but also have added new items with tortillas, in recent times. For example, the Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Baja Fresh, owned by Wendy’s International, developed a new tortilla soup last year to complement its permanent menu, which features six different versions of burritos, seven types of tacos, and enchiladas, fajitas, quesadillas and nachos made with tortilla chips. The Denver-headquartered Qdoba Mexican Grill — likewise owned by a traditional burger chain, Jack-in-the Box — also launched a new tortilla soup last fall.
Quick-service restaurants that built their business on Mexican fare are adding to their fare, as well. Erstwhile chain Taco Bell, for instance, added a Chicken Caesar Stuft Burrito to its menu this summer, complementing the chain’s other Stuft burrito options made with large tortillas. Taco Bell’s other take on the tortillas is its relatively recent Crunchwrap Supreme, which is made with hexagonal tortilla that allows it to be sealed on all sides for “maximum portability.”
Warming Up To Tortillas
Beyond Mexican-style fast-casual and quick-service operations, other QSRs have “rounded” out their menus with tortillas.
McDonald’s, parent company of Chipotle — at least until this fall, when the Mexican grill spins off on its own — is the most prolific example. The August rollout of its Snack Wrap really played to the prominence of the flour tortilla in its supporting advertising campaign. The Snack Wrap consists of all white meat Chicken Selects, ranch sauce, Cheddar jack cheese and lettuce rolled into a warm 8-in. flour tortilla supplied by tortilla makers such as Mission Foods.
“This one is a new enhanced, more pliable product, and it has a really fresh flavor that comes through in the tortilla,” explains Stockard, adding that the 8-in. size befits the typical eating occasion of the Snack Wrap. “During the day, people don’t sit down and eat like they used to. That is of huge benefit to a tortilla, because it’s very portable, and this is a product you can get in the drive-thru and eat on the way. It’s very self-contained.”
Even in the early weeks since the launch, reports Stockard, the Snack Wrap has been well-received by consumers. McDonald’s is “always looking at things” for down-the- road development, she says, including perhaps new varieties of the Snack Wrap.
At Arby’s, sales of its Market Fresh Wraps, including Roast Turkey, Ranch & Bacon, Chicken Salad with Pecans, Ultimate BLT and Southwestern Chicken, are doing well in their respective regions, Siefert reports. The wraps also are touted as an option for those looking for lower carbs and higher fiber, since they are made with whole wheat flour tortillas.
As one might expect, QSRs and fast-casual outlets specializing in sandwiches have added tortillas to their lineup of traditional sandwiches made with rolls and breads. Blimpie, for example, now offers wraps such as Chicken Caesar, Zesty Italian and Southwestern on either a flour or spinach tortilla. Meanwhile, Subway offers a series of “Carb Conscious” wrap sandwiches, including Chicken & Bacon Ranch, Tuna, Turkey & Bacon Melt and Turkey Breast varieties.
Roly Poly Franchise Systems, Jacksonville, Fla., is one example of a chain that’s built its business on rolled sandwiches. It offers about 50 varieties of rolled sandwiches that come hot or cold, custom or from the fixed menu.
Still, fast-casual and quick-service settings aren’t the only foodservice segments that are rolling up sales with tortillas. Tortillas also are common in family casual chains, such as Applebee’s, Overland Park, Kan., and Chili’s of the Dallas-based Brinker International group. Based on market research, 78% of fine dining establishment have tortillas on hand, as well. These venues are more apt to use flavored tortillas for extra kick and presentation.
It’s a Toss-Up
The fusion concept is not new to foodservice. One of the latest twists is the marriage of the wrap and the salad.
Is it a match made in heaven? Some operators seem to think so. Take Taco Bell, for instance, which has referred to its Chicken Caesar Stuft Burrito as a salad in wrapped form. In addition, Wendy’s is said to be considering the addition of a wrapped salad on its menu. And chicken stalwart KFC (also part of the Yum! Brands) offers a Twister made with crispy chicken strips, fresh salad and pepper mayonnaise, wrapped inside a warmed tortilla.
But this trend goes beyond the QSR arena. Boston-based fast-casual chain Au Bon Pain may be known for its soup and crusty sandwiches, but that hasn’t stopped the powers that be at the nationwide chain from extending into wrap/salad combinations. Among its offerings are a Chopped Cobb Salad Wrap, Chicken Caesar Wrap, Fields & Feta Wrap and Mediterranean Wrap.
Up-and-coming fast-casual concepts that base their businesses on salad fare are incorporating tortillas into their menus, too. Dallas-based Greenz, for example, sells 12 salads that can be served in a bowl or wrapped in a tortilla.
Buenos Dias Burritos
Breakfast burritos have long been popular selections in foodservice operations ranging from corporate and hospital cafeterias to quick-service burger chains such as McDonald’s. Now, operators are making the tortilla-filled menu items even larger.
St. Louis-based Hardee’s is carrying a Loaded Breakfast Burrito that features a tortilla wrapped around ham, bacon sausage and salsa, among other ingredients.
Meanwhile, Jack-in-the-Box has taken a cue from its Qdoba Mexican Grill chain and developed its own new Meaty Breakfast Burrito — a warm flour tortilla filled with ham, bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, shredded cheese and salsa.
Breakfast has never been bigger … or tastier.