Mastering the art of tortillas and business at La Mesa Tortillas - The Explorer: Women In Business

Mastering the art of tortillas and business at La Mesa Tortillas

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Posted: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 4:00 am

The tortillas that Edisa Salcido begins cranking out while much of Tucson is still waking up have been with her a lifetime, but she didn’t know of any made fresh on the northwest side. So she decided to change that.

Born-and-raised south Tucsonans Salcido and her sister, Denise West, knew for some time that they wanted to go into business together once Salcido took her retirement from the military.

“I wanted to own a business but I was scared, right?” she said. “And I thought, well, let me try the traditional route.”

Salcido, a 28-year Air Force veteran, retired as a chief master sergeant in October – the first Hispanic woman to reach the rank at the Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing, she noted – and in anticipation of this, tried to find civilian work related to her military duties, which were largely in the area of human resources. She put out several applications, including to a contractor that works with Davis-Monthan, but got little response. So she went to a business that has officially been in the family for 17 years and has been a tradition for much longer.

“I sat and I talked to my sister and said, ‘Are you really serious about this?’ Because I’m more cautious, I think,” Salcido said. “So we sat and thought about it, talked about it and said, ‘Let’s go with it. Let’s go for it.’”

The sisters’ cousin, who owns the La Mesa Tortillas on Broadway and Pantano and Pima and Alvernon, licensed the business and has been a mentor. They use the same family recipes, drawn from the kitchen of their great-aunt Mama Fila, that bring customers into the eastside and midtown stores.

The menu is Mexican comfort food, with green chili tamales, red and green chili, and quesadillas taking center stage. One of their specialties is a jalapeno flour tortilla, and they’re perfecting Mama Fila’s arroz con leche – rice pudding – and a Mexican hot chocolate, sweet like their grandmother made it.

The pair kicked business development into high gear last summer and opened a few weeks ago.

Salcido said she and West have complementary skill sets: she does the hands-on production, while West, who also works at a Tucson jewelry store, handles marketing and management. The store employs seven people part-time.

Salcido is typically in the kitchen at about 6:15 a.m., when she comes into the store to prepare the masa, or dough. A large industrial mixer and divider streamline the laborious task, but it still takes three more people to roll out, stretch and cook the tortillas: one person flattening the dough balls through a sheeter, two to stretch and shape by hand, and one – that’s Salcido – to brown them on the flattop stove. Salcido and crew make about 12 to 18 dozen tortillas a day. Daily tortilla production is hard work, but West said there’s a need. Not everybody wants store-bought.

With only three stores in the local chain, La Mesa is probably one of the smaller tortilla places in Tucson, Salcido said.

“But that’s ok because I think that’s what makes it good.”

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