In 1960, Salvador DeLaTorre bought a storefront retail bakery named La Popular, offering tamales, cookies and some tortillas, in the Denver neighborhood now known as RiNo. By the 1970s, he had acquired an additional location a few blocks away to dedicate to tortilla and tortilla chip production—a facility that was larger than what was currently needed, but with an eye on growing the business.
His sons Richard (“Rich”) Schneider and Raul DeLaTorre worked at the bakery, and in 1981, they asked their father for a $25 a week raise. His response? “He said, ‘If you want more money, you can earn it,’” says Rich. And then Don Salvador tossed his sons the keys to the bakery.
“There have been a lot of days when I wish he would have just given us the $25,” says Rich.
“Back then, we would get the Yellow Pages and pull out the Mexican restaurant page, and it wasn’t even a full page of restaurants,” says Rich. “There were a few companies in the area making tortillas then, and we would all chase those few accounts. Back then, tortillas were pretty much only used at Mexican restaurants.”
But Raquelitas Tortillas (named after Raul’s daughter), found its niche. And the tortilla market has grown significantly over the past few decades. “You started to see non-Mexican restaurants serving Mexican food,” says Rich. Wraps became a bread of choice for sandwiches, especially as people got more mobile with grab-and-go. They’re used in Indian food. We even have one customer using our tomato tortillas for a tuna poke wrap.”
Today, Raquelitas is thriving, meeting a need for local, high-quality, fresh—sometimes specialized—tortillas and tortilla chips across Colorado’s vibrant foodservice market. They are products with integrity, and they have a story to tell.
Salvador, Raul and Rich eventually sold La Popular, the original storefront bakery, to focus exclusively on wholesale tortilla and tortilla chip production. In an interesting move, Daniel DeLaTorre, Rich and Raul’s brother, bought La Popular in 2005.
Salvador, Raul and Rich expanded their tortilla business from Denver to the nation through an astute mix of perseverance and business savvy. Their attention to ingredient and overall product quality—as well as a willingness to customize products for customers—attracted business. They notably craft their own masa in-house for a select range of corn tortilla products, bringing truly authentic flavor to the tortillas (Daniel likewise uses a scratch nixtamalization process over at La Popular to make masa for his tortillas and tamales). National interest in Raquelitas Tortillas began to grow, and the company started shipping its tortillas and tortilla chips throughout the U.S.
While this growth brought positive business momentum, it also posed challenges, says Rich, who holds the title of “tortilla savant” at Raquelitas Tortillas. “We started getting pulled into different states. We were making more than 100 different types of products. And they were being being shipped to every state except for Hawaii. We were even shipping one type of chip to Alaska.”
Typically, standard tortillas only hold “a certain value,” notes Rich. “If you start tacking on freight, it becomes inefficient.” There has to be something unique about the products in order to go to the effort—and added cost—to ship them longer distances.
Unfortunately, the shipping industry has continued to pose its share of challenges—particularly when it comes to having enough drivers—and prices have escalated.
“At the same time, Colorado’s appetite for tortillas grew significantly,” says Rich. “We’ve had a lot of people move here. So it turned out that Colorado was able to take everything we could make. So we said to ourselves, ‘If we can sell everything we can make in our own backyard, why are we messing around with national freight?’”
Apart from a few accounts in Montana, all of the bakery’s business is now in Colorado. That’s a great fit, because Raquelitas places its focus on quality, including a strong connection to local Colorado ingredients and suppliers.
Quality in, quality out
Building a business based on artisan quality, often with a clear farm-to-table sensibility—and the associated costs of that approach—requires developing strong relationships.
“We tend to buy from people, not logos,” says Rich. “We work with proven partners. We get approached by suppliers, and they typically lead with, ‘I can save you money…’ That does not interest me. We’re not trying to make the cheapest tortilla on the market. We’re going after something else. Let’s make something that no one else really dares to make. I mean, we’re making a tortilla with wine. You have got to have a very prestigious customer base to make a tortilla with wine—and charge appropriately. And yet, they find value in it.”
Customers of Raquelitas Tortillas include renowned restaurants like Denver’s Casa Bonita and The Broadmoor, a grand hotel and resort in Colorado Springs.
“We like to find those suppliers or growers that are offering premium products, companies that are growing them here in our own backyard, companies that are doing something innovative,” says Rich. “That’s one of our core values: How innovative can we be?”
Through the years, Raquelitas has built relationships with several key Colorado-based ingredient suppliers, including grains from Denver-based Ardent Mills, and high-oleic sunflower oil from Colorado Mills located in Lamar, CO, part of the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s “Colorado Proud” program, which supports local farmers, ranchers, greenhouse growers, manufacturers and processors. The non-GMO corn for Raquelitas corn tortillas comes from Bow & Arrow, a farm run by Native American Ute tribe on its sustainable farm at the base of Sleeping Ute Mountain near Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.
Many Colorado consumers resonate with the “go local” trend. “It’s a national trend, but we are ground zero for that,” says Rich. “The song that we are singing is one that people want to hear. It has allowed us to dig deeper and spend a lot of time with farmers. We’re involved with Colorado State University’s agricultural program. We walk the fields with Colorado farmers. We go and visit the wheat farmers, the sunflower farmers.”
Local chiles also go into the mix. “I’m doing some flour tortillas with chiles grown in Pueblo, CO,” says Rich. “Everyone knows Hatch, NM. So I said, ‘Well, let’s find some that are grown here in Colorado.’”
This refined approach toward sourcing often adds cost to the products, and Rich is always happy to sit down with his customers and discuss the reasoning behind the ingredients Raquelitas selects for its products. In fact, he notes that when they opted to go with their high-oleic sunflower producer and a customer questioned the associated price hike, he met with the customer in question and brought a representative of the sunflower farming company with him to discuss the value and cachet inherent in the selection.
By the time the meeting concluded, everyone was on the same page.
Rich also supports Colorado food businesses via the airwaves on “The Modern Eater” radio show on 630 KHOW and iHeartRadio. “It’s a local show on Saturday night for two hours.” Chefs come in and cook local Colorado products like Colorado beef seared in Colorado oil. “We talk about Colorado farmers, ranchers, bakers, flour millers, people who make hot sauce, people who make tortillas… We’re helping food manufacturers, brewers, wineries and distillers.”
A clean approach
Raquelitas continually adds to its story. One recent chapter is a switch to 100 percent wind power for the bakery’s energy needs. Wind energy has seen significant growth in Colorado, and the state is aiming for a goal of generating 20 percent of total energy from renewable sources by 2020.
“It’s a program called Windsource here in Colorado,” says Rich. “We were looking to be more environmentally responsible and ran across the Windsource program. Basically, they were representing groups of investors that were building big wind farms. They’re all over the northeast part of the state.”
Raquelitas promotes this use of wind energy via its logo, which is printed onto every box of its products. “Today, there are many, many wind farms around the state. And it’s nice to know that we have helped contribute to that. I like to tell people, ‘With every box that you buy, you too are responsible for those wind farms.’ It’s a way for them to participate.
“We do cost more,” continues Rich. “Our product does cost more. But we give our customers compelling reasons for that cost. They’re buying into a movement, not just a box of tortilla chips. They’re buying into something that’s good. It’s honest. It’s genuine. And that’s our secret sauce.”
Raquelitas doesn’t want to grow beyond the point where an expanded business plan could potentially compromise that “secret sauce”—the signature factors that made the products great in the first place. “Most companies in our position would be in growth mode right now,” says Rich. “But in five years, we don’t want people to ever look back and say, ‘The tortillas were better back then.’ We want people to say, ‘They’ve never been better!’ Will growing as big as we can take us there? Probably not. We’re not a big player. But we’re focused on one thing—staying great and being innovative.”