Hacienda Mexican Foods is known for its authentic Mexican products, but the company wouldn’t be where it is today without its secret ingredient – the president herself.

When Lydia Gutierrez’ husband passed away in 2005, she was forced to make a decision. Either she had to shut down the company her husband created or learn the ropes and keep his legacy alive.

For many women, grieving for your husband while running a business isn’t necessarily the ideal situation. However, Gutierrez isn’t your average woman.

Behind every great man, there’s a great woman, and Gutierrez is no exception to the rule. That’s why the Tortilla Queen of Detroit has not only managed to carry out her late husband’s dream, but she also continues to do so with grace, poise, finesse and a team of loyal employees.

Since the early ‘90s, Hacienda Mexican Foods has been producing authentic tortillas, taco shells, tortilla chips and tostadas for grocery stores, restaurants and foodservice establishments. Products were once sold in the metro Detroit area, but are now available in more than 15 states and parts of Canada.

To meet customers’ demands, the company changes its product mix, Gutierrez says.

For example, Hacienda Mexican Foods produces tortilla strips for soups and salads and recently expanded into non-Mexican foods such as pita chips. In addition, it has experienced an increase in sales in the pita chip business, and wraps are becoming a major player as demand for this product is on the rise, she says.

“We know for sure that our tortilla chips are [the top sellers],” Gutierrez says.

In fact, the products are so authentic, that once consumers eat them, they’ll start speaking Spanish, Gutierrez likes to say.

Currently, the company sells its products under the Hacienda de Gutierrez and the soon-to-be-launched Lydia’s brands, but overall, they account for only a portion of overall annual revenues. In fact, 85% of its annual sales come from private label products, which are distributed in 20 states. The key is that tortilla chips can find a home almost anywhere, says Tim Lee, sales director.

“There is not a place where [tortilla chips] can’t go,” he says. “It opens doors for us. [It’s about] getting into places with the chips, then we offer our other products like the wraps and flour tortillas.”

The folks at Hacienda Mexican Foods also continue to study the market and understand what works in different distribution channels.

For instance, Mexican consumers primarily eat corn tortillas, Gutierrez says, whereas flour products are geared more toward the non-Mexican consumers.

“The Hacienda de Gutierrez [brand] is for the Mexican market, and not just here [in Detroit]. We are continuing to identify other Hispanic pockets throughout the state where this brand is widely accepted,” Gutierrez says.

A focus group helped Hacienda identify the Lydia’s brand to service the non-traditional Mexican markets, she adds, because it is easy to remember, easy to say and embodies Gutierrez’s sense of social accountability and responsibility, which also helps establish the brand.

Furthermore, Mexican and non-traditional Mexican shoppers, Lee adds, are attracted to different types of packaging and labels. It’s not one size fits all. For instance, Mexican consumers are more used to clear packaging, which is more or less what they would find in Mexico, while Anglo shoppers rely on the packaging to inform them how to use the products in different menu applications. To indicate the products’ authenticity, packaging comes with a Mexican flag on the front and the tagline, “Made in the heart of Detroit Mexican town.” The packaging also showcases the quality of the product, which is kosher, high in fiber and low in sodium.

Playing the local card also helps because of the economical pitfalls that have hit the city of Detroit. To provide a helping hand, many Michigan-based consumers are opting for Michigan-made products, Lee notes.

 “There’s a big push on Michigan-made products and the local [products],” he adds. “[Michigan consumers] spend their hard-earned dollars to help sustain the local economy. By allowing us to grow, that keeps people working. In the past, we would see [tortillas] from Texas and other states. They come in frozen. Our approach is support local, even the Michigan grocers are doing that.”

The Royal Lineup

Hacienda Mexican Foods started with just two employees, and has since blossomed into a 100-employee company that produces a battery of products under some of the nation’s most recognized private label brands.

For instance, the Hacienda de Gutierrez regional brand consists of 5.5-in. corn and yellow tortillas, 8-in. whole wheat tortillas and 15-oz. Mexican pork and beef sausages, which come in hot and mild varieties. In addition, the brand encompasses 14-oz. bags of all-natural corn tortilla chips, available in Salted, Unsalted, Salted Blue Corn and Salted Sesame Seed types. The larger sized, 8-count packages of all-natural taco shells come in Original and Blue Corn.

Meanwhile, the Lydia’s brand, which is projected to launch within the next six months and specifically targets the non-traditional Mexican markets, will include Regular White, Whole Wheat and Whole Grain tortillas. In addition, the 8-oz. package of Lydia’s pita chips come in Baked, Natural, Garlic, Cinnamon, Barbecue, Parmesan, Ranch, Onion and Jalapeño offerings.

Moreover, all of Hacienda de Gutierrez and Lydia’s brand products deliver zero trans fat, are made with stone-ground corn and provide an authentic flavor.

“The consumer today is very conscientious about their health. They want healthy products. They want products that are authentic and carry some kind of community responsibility,” Gutierrez says. “Things that separate us are quality, dependability, reliability, flexibility, straight from our ovens, right to your kitchen. Really taking the idea that we’re not just manufacturers, we are partners in your business. And even the small guy to the big guy — we’re going to do whatever it takes to help you grow your business, and if we do that, then we are successful.”

Furthermore, all of the packaging labels are designed and printed in-house, and come in English, Spanish and even French.

“A lot of the labeling we do is both in English and in French because we’re so close to the Canadian border. It just makes sense to do both of the languages right there on the bag,” Gutierrez says. “[We changed the packaging] because we wanted to penetrate a different market altogether. Although this is a beautiful package, we could not penetrate the Mexican market with this package. It’s not for them.”

Although Gutierrez is dubbed the tortilla queen of Detroit, she says that she isn’t always sitting at the top.

“Our customers are just as important as our employees,” she says. “When I look at it in the scheme of things, I’m not at the very top. I’m kind of at the bottom. If I take care of my customers and my employees, then it’s going to come back and then I’ll be taken care of.”

As a result, Hacienda Mexican Foods continues to shine. Speaking like a true leader, Gutierrez continues to reign as the queen of all things tortilla.