The smell of roasting corn permeates the air as machines whir, click, and hiss. Outside, it’s a suffocatingly hot June afternoon, but inside the Raquelitas Tortillas factory in RiNo—where commercial-grade ovens blaze at 600 degrees—the heat is a welcome sign of booming business.
Rich Schneider, a 61-year-old Raquelitas business partner and self-described “tortilla savant,” strolls through the 25,000-square-foot facility, where roughly two dozen workers supervise production lines and package freshly made tortillas into pink and teal boxes. Wearing jeans, an untucked Hawaiian shirt, and custom-made Vans emblazoned with tortillas, Schneider points out the various stages of the process: the vats that soak 800-pound batches of corn, the beige conveyer belt that spits out balls of dough in neat rows of six, the nine-tier cooling machine on which fresh-from-the-oven circles of goodness dry for approximately 190 seconds.
It’s an impressive production, and whether or not you know it, chances are you’ve sampled the end result. The 62-year-old company churns through 55,000 pounds of corn per week to make about 40 different tortilla and chip flavors (from green chile to hibiscus to Malbec) for upwards of 1,500 restaurants and vendors. The majority of those establishments are local: Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant, Reiver’s Bar and Grill, Shanahan’s, Blue Agave, the Broadmoor, and Casa Bonita (before it closed), to name a few. Order nachos at a Colorado 7-Eleven, and you’ll receive Raquelitas’ chips; buy a burrito before your flight out of DIA—at Mesa Verde Bar & Grill, at New Belgium Brewing, at La Casita Tamales—and odds are it’ll be wrapped in a Raquelitas tortilla.
It’s unlikely Salvador De La Torre and his wife—both born in Colorado but raised in Mexico—envisioned such an empire when they purchased a tamale shop at Larimer and 19th streets in 1959. The couple kept the name “La Popular” (no relation to the restaurant on Lawrence Street today) and at first sold mostly to-go food, including tamales, baked goods, and a small number of flour and corn tortillas. The De La Torres didn’t have enough revenue early on to hire employees, so they put their young sons, Raul and Danny, to work. After school, the kids helped operate the ovens. Raul, who was 10 at the time, was also tasked with selling tamales to bar patrons on Larimer Street. “Back then, the bars were rough,” Raul says. But he willed himself inside, fearing his mother’s wrath should he return home with unsold product.
Peddling tortillas was an equally fraught endeavor. “We were chased out of restaurants, we were chased out of Safeways, we were chased out of a lot of retail outlets,” says Raul, now 70 and the president of Raquelitas. The problem, he explains, was that “nobody knew really what a tortilla was, except for the Mexican people.”
So, the De La Torres took it upon themselves to educate the community, teaching a local family who owned several restaurants—Holly West, Holly South, Holly, and Holly Inn—how to make enchiladas and burritos in the early 1960s. “From there, they started putting [our products] in different restaurants,” Raul says. “And that’s how we actually started growing into the American community.”
In 1982, Salvador retired, leaving Raul and Schneider to run the business, a task they say they were woefully unprepared for. (Schneider had been a family friend for several years and joined the company in 1979; Danny left La Popular in the 1970s to become a firefighter.) Raul and Schneider had only worked the production line and knew nothing about the business side—taxes, payroll, liaising with vendors—of what would become Raquelitas.
Through experimentation and a fair amount of error—including learning to more thoroughly vet customers after a string of them never paid for their orders—Schneider and Raul kept La Popular going. In the mid-1980s, they changed the company’s name to Raquelitas Tortillas, in honor of Raul’s daughter, Rachelle. They tweaked the recipes, too. “It’s been a science,” Raul says, “to get us to where we’re at.”
Over the years, Raquelitas’ evolution has included changes to ensure nearly all of its ingredients are locally sourced, high-quality, and non-GMO—a move it made in the pursuit of superior ethics and flavor. The company now uses yellow heirloom corn grown on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southwestern Colorado, where tending the crops gives meaningful employment to residents. Though the product costs more than genetically modified corn, “it makes an even better tortilla and chip,” Schneider says, adding that the ingredient gives the products a richer flavor and stronger aroma. And the sunflower oil that enhances the pliability of Raquelitas’ flour tortillas—and is used to fry all of its chips—is pressed at Lamar’s Colorado Mills, which buys goods grown on 250 family farms.
One thing Raquelitas hasn’t changed is its use of wet-milled corn instead of maseca, a widely used flour derived from corn that is cooked, washed, and dried. Maseca makes for easy tortilla crafting—it’s similar to just-add-water pancake mix—but it tends to absorb a lot of oil when fried and comes at the cost of diminished flavor and nutrients. “Maseca is the white flour of corn,” Schneider says. Alternatively, with wet-milled corn, “all that fiber, all the nutrients, all the folic acid, everything is there,” he says. “We’ve made chefs cry—seriously! It’s like hearing an old song. … That smell will bring you back to when you were a little boy looking up at your grandma.”
The coronavirus threatened Raquelitas’ ability to continue providing that nostalgia, as sales dropped about 90 percent from mid-March through June 2020. When the surge in takeout began to buoy its restaurant clients, however, Raquelitas quickly pivoted to respond to their unique COVID-19 quandaries: For example, after hearing that delivery tacos were falling apart before arriving at diners’ homes, the company developed a more durable tortilla.
Through the worst of the pandemic, Raquelitas also stayed committed to giving back. The business has continued to support Colorado Restaurant Foundation financial initiatives, such as a grant program that helped local establishments expand their outdoor dining options. Personally, Schneider spent much of the past year mentoring high school and college students via Zoom on the ins and outs of the food service industry. Those karma points are apparently paying off, as a little more than a year after Raquelitas nearly shuttered, business is busier than ever, thanks to recovering restaurant and tourism sectors. “We’re fighting to be able to keep up with the demand right now,” Raul says.
Raquelitas’ clients, in turn, are hopeful the Denver institution will continue to thrive. Says Steve Richter, chief operating officer for the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant chain, where Raquelitas’ corn chips have been served for more than 25 years: “I don’t think anybody else does what they do in this market.”