Coloring Outside the Lines

By Deborah Cassell

La Bonita Olé’s founder, Tammy Young, is as colorful as the company’s new digs in sunny Tampa, Fla. Here, she shares her amazing story and paints a picture of the burgeoning tortilla producer’s bright future.
The roof is purple. That’s the first thing you notice about La Bonita Olé’s new headquarters on Columbus Drive in Tampa, Fla. It’s one of many signs that this isn’t your ordinary tortilla producer.
Another indication is just inside the front door. The lobby is painted scarlet red, and large bookcases are decorated with a kaleidoscope of Mexican memorabilia, including a green and yellow paper maché cactus and other handcrafted collectibles.
Through a window opposite the shelves, the neighboring conference room is accented in lime green. The space opens up into a full-size kitchen — fit for a celebrity chef — with a marble-counter island, multicolored glass pendant lights and modern steel appliances.
Not to be left out, the production area that houses the company’s two flour and corn tortilla lines has unexpected yellow and periwinkle ceilings and walls.
Bonita, indeed.
At the heart of this virtual rainbow is the office of La Bonita Olé’s president and CEO, Tammy Young. French doors lead into the sanctuary Young occupies, complete with scented candles and various award trophies — including one from Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery naming her company Tortilla Manufacturer of the Year — which are scattered about the room, as she points out. They reflect the pride this woman feels for the business she founded.
“Dreams really do come true,” she says with feeling, as only a person who started something from nothing can.
Young says her own entrepreneurial story is no different than anyone else’s. But how many companies can say they’ve grown a $13,000 investment into an estimated $20 million business over the course of 15 years?
“I am still amazed,” Young says. And she should be. Back in 1977, the vivacious executive was an entry-level route driver who filled vending machines for Tom’s Potato Chips, the salted snack producer based in Charlotte, N.C.
“Later, I drove an 18-ft. truck with 10 gears ... all over Kentucky and Indiana for Mrs. Grissom’s Salads,” she adds.
Young eventually was promoted to supervisor and began loading trucks and managing route sales, but the hours — 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. — didn’t suit her. Consequently, she left Mrs. Grissom’s and joined Armour Foods, a division of ConAgra, where she remained for 10 years, receiving eight promotions before doing the unthinkable.
From Trucks to Tortillas
In 1992, Young left Armour Foods and withdrew her 401-K retirement savings account — paying all the penalties that accompanied that decision — to start La Bonita Olé.
As a food industry veteran, she saw tortillas as a growth category, but thought there was room for improvement in the quality of products already on the market. 
“You can put anything in a tortilla ... and they’re damn good,” she adds.
Due to the explosion of Mexican restaurants in the United States — as well as trends such as convenience, taste, nutrition and flexibility — tortillas were ripe for a takeover.
It was with the help of her friend Fernando Gutierrez, whose parents had opened their own tortilla business in Monterrey, Mexico, way back in 1928, that Young got her start. Gutierrez later moved his family’s company, La Michoacana, to Detroit. In 1992, he began co-packing Young’s product, while she designed the packaging. Together, they made $86,000 in sales during La Bonita Olé’s first year.
At the time, the company offered six retail products — three flour and three corn varieties, the latter of which were made from steam-cooked, stone-ground corn tortillas. However, with little money for slotting fees, the brand failed to get good placement in supermarkets.
It was then that Young started tapping into personal relationships to fund the business.
In 1996, when dot-coms and the high-tech industry were flying, La Bonita Olé made its first and only private stock offering, she recalls. Family and friends — including Young’s high school classmates — pitched in. Following her 20-year reunion, Young’s class chose to invest what was left of its fund in La Bonita Olé.
What happened next was nothing short of a pot of gold. A friend from her high school cheerleading squad had married a Coca-Cola heir, who became the tortilla producer’s benefactor in late December of that year.
“We got the money on Monday and went Christmas shopping ... and the company was saved,” Young says.
The rest is, as they say, history.
Eventually, Young plans to turn La Bonita Olé into a national and international business, and grow its private label and foodservice channels.
“These are huge areas for opportunity for our company in volume and profitability,” Young says.
In the meantime, it will focus on what it does best.
Not Your Ordinary Product
This year, La Bonita Olé marked its 15th anniversary, and there was plenty to celebrate. In March, it opened its first production facility — a 40,000-sq.-ft. plant at which it produces retail, co-packed, private label and foodservice items. (See “Going Ballistic” for details.)
Currently, La Bonita Olé’s Tam-x-ico’s brand is the No. 3 retail refrigerated tortilla brand in the Eastern United States, according to Young, who adds that the company also has become the No. 2 retail refrigerated tortilla manufacturer in that part of the country. In addition, Tam-x-ico’s and Wrap-itz are the fastest growing brands in dollar sales and unit sales in the Eastern United States. Both lines are available in the majority of major retailers in 28 states. The former comes in 10 stockkeeping units (SKUs), while the latter offers 12 SKUs.
Although traditional corn and flour tortillas are its bread and butter, the company also looks for innovations in terms of size, function and flavor.
“We listen very well to our consumers and customers,” Young says.
As such, La Bonita Olé became one of the first companies in the country to introduce low-carb tortillas at retail, she notes. In addition to offering a white whole wheat variety, it also has developed specialty flavors such as Sun Dried Tomato and Savory Spinach. Flavored products are made with liquid formulations, instead of dry/powder ingredients, that incorporate fresh vegetables and herbs through a special fermentation process.
Because of this, “We can make the claim ‘made with fresh vegetables,’” Young says.
The tortilla and wrap producer also markets a My Choice sub-brand of both its refrigerated Tam-x-ico’s and shelf-stable Wrap-Itz offerings that is rich in nutrients for a healthy lifestyle. This first-to-market offering consists of products with 10 whole grains/Omega-3/calcium/fiber, Omega-3/calcium/fiber or lycopene/calcium.
As if that weren’t enough, all the company’s products are trans fat-free, 96% fat-free, cholesterol-free, Kosher and made with canola oil for heart health — proof that La Bonita Olé is focused on quality in every area.
Thriving on Competition
When Young was just starting her business, “there were some very challenging times,” she admits, citing the difficulties of gaining market entry with large customers. Today, she says her biggest obstacle is managing the company’s growth, which involves paying special attention to the details. La Bonita Olé is focused on making its niche product the best it can be.
Young quotes popcorn kingpin Orville Redenbacher, who said, “We do one thing, and we do it right.”
Needless to say, the tortilla category is a competitive one, but La Bonita Olé is up to the challenge. When competitors tried to block the brand’s early advances by dropping their pricepoints, the new kid on the block fought back by lowering its own. Thanks to retailers that gave the company a chance to prove itself — including early supporters such as Publix, Kroger, BI-LO and Giant of Carlisle — La Bonita Olé’s brands now are in the top three share of every market it’s in.
“Our success is highly attributed to word of mouth by consumers and their appreciation for the quality,” Young says. In addition, the manufacturer does a lot of marketing at the point of purchase. It also partners with other branded products such as Sargento cheese.
“We try to be very creative,” Young says, adding that “we try to support our retail customers,” as well.
An Extended Family
“It is through faith in God, myself and my team,” Young says, that she was able to rise above all adversity and keep from giving up.
That team includes sales managers such as John Shoemaker of Louisville, Ky.; Tom DeSimone of Buffalo, N.Y.; and Jim Kelly of Boston, who have more than 90 years of combined consumer packaged sales/merchandising experience. According to Young, these three men lead some of the country’s finest food broker sales teams, including Advantage Sales & Marketing, RDD, Crossmark Sales & Marketing, Focus Marketing, Golden Isle, Daymon and NTC Marketing.
Young also credits Dave Waters, La Bonita Olé’s vice president of operations, for a state-of-the-art production operation, and Joey Young, her brother, for daily production management. Nor can Young forget her sister, Martha Martin, who heads up administration and accounting.
In addition, none of La Bonita Olé’s success would have been possible without the help of the Tortilla Industry Association, Young asserts.
“It’s a wonderful organization,” she says of TIA, on whose board of directors she served for four years. The relationships Young has made through TIA have been extremely helpful, she adds.
“We are an industry that cares about all of its members,” she asserts. “We’re like a bunch of friends helping each other.”
After all, she adds, “That’s what the world’s about.”
But Young also credits a higher power for her success.
“God does extraordinary things through ordinary people,” she says.
Not that Young is ordinary. Far from it. Few company presidents are as genuine, vivacious and driven as this powerful yet petite woman.
“We’re all dreamers, and we believe that everything is possible,” Young says, with unshakable earnestness.
As for the more than $20 million La Bonita is projecting annually, the business can only grow stronger.
“Anything less than $100 million in revenue is unacceptable,” Young says, laughing.
But she’s quite serious. Like the walls around her — and the purple roof over her head — “The future is very bright,” Young says. “We wear shades around here a lot.” SF&WB
Wrap Artist of the Year
La Bonita Olé’s 100% Whole Wheat Wrap-Itz was voted one of the 100 Best Packaged Foods for Women by Women’s Health in the magazine’s September issue. The product was cited for delivering the nutrients that a woman needs to stay fit and slim down without excess calories, chemicals and saturated fat. The Wrap-Itz variety offers added Omega-3 and calcium, as well as 10 whole grains.
At A Glance
Company: La Bonita Olé, Inc.
Founded: 1992
Headquarters/Plant Location:  Tampa, Fla.
Plant Size: 40,000 sq. ft.
No. of Shifts: 3
No. of Employees: 55
Products: Traditional flour and corn tortillas, flavored wraps and chips, nutrient-added tortillas
Distribution: Currently in the Eastern United States
Brands: Tam-x-ico’s and Wrap-itz
Web site:

Founder, President and CEO: Tammy M. Young
VP Administration/Accounting: Martha Martin
VP of Operations: Dave Waters
VP of Sales & Marketing: John Shoemaker
National Sales Manager: Tom DeSimone
Director of Business Development: Jim Kelly