Helen Chavez-Hansen, owner and president of La Tapatia Tortilleria Inc., Fresno, Calif., and Eugene Suarez Sr., vice president of Abuelita Mexican Foods, Manassas Park, Va., are the recipients of the Tortilla Industry Association’s (TIA) 2012 Hall of Fame awards. TIA made the announcement during its 23rd Annual Convention & Trade Exposition in Las Vegas, Sept. 10-11.
The epitome of a self-taught business person, Chavez-Hansen began her career at 19, working for a local grain company, and soon became more involved with business matters, saving money to purchase her first corn tortilla production line. From that purchase, she developed a small company that produced corn and flour tortillas called La Tapatia Tortilleria, where Chavez-Hansen spent her off hours. The company grew and soon Chavez-Hansen left the grain company job to become sole owner of La Tapatia in the late 1980s. Expanding further, in 1993, the company began producing tortilla chips using “the highest-quality ingredient.” The success of the chips led to the addition of more chip production lines and flavors.
Chavez-Hansen is hands-on in every aspect of her company’s research and development and takes pride in preserving the natural taste of La Tapatia products by allowing the corn or flour to shine through. More products were added, such as flavored wraps, tostadas, strips and various health-focused items. Today, the thriving company has more than 180 employees, distributes from 31 routes and produces in excess of $20 million.
Suarez and his son produced their first tortilla in 1971 at a tiny tortilla factory in Herndon, Va. From these humble beginnings, they grew a company in Manassas Park with a 36,000-sq.-ft. production facility and more than 60 employees.
Abuelita produces classic 6-in. corn tortillas inspired by the cooking and recipes of Carmen Suarez, the family matriarch. Whole kernel corn cooked in small batches and ground was baked to create the great taste and texture of truly authentic corn tortillas. This process is still the fundamental basis for all of Abuelita’s corn products.
During the early 1970s, there were very few Mexican restaurants and fewer suppliers of Mexican food staples. Suarez’s cooking experience for prisoners on reservations and society dinner catering skills gave him the seeds to open a tortilla factory with a friend. They saw a need to fill a void for quality corn tortillas and tortilla chips. Suarez found a building in Herndon that would eventually become the company’s first production plant. With help from family and friends, the entrepreneurs rolled their first tortillas and established S&K Industries, Abuelita Mexican Foods.
Today, 41 years later, Abuelita distributes flour tortillas and various prepared foods, now processing approximately 25,000 lb. of whole kernel corn and 12,000 lb. of corn flour each day. Still family-operated, the company’s employees have tenures of service averaging 25 years. The dedication of the owners and staff to producing quality Mexican corn products has led to plenty of success and longevity, reflecting an entrepreneurial spirit that continues on today. Both father and son are very active in daily operations and guide the company on the path to more success.