Family behind Fiesta Tortillas looks back on 37 years of making tortillas in Austin
Luis Picos grew up around the tortilla-making equipment at his family’s business, Fiesta Tortillas, which since 1984 has been selling tortillas to Austin-area restaurants and grocery stores.
The business has been around longer than he has. At 32, he and his siblings run the day-to-day operations based in a warehouse in Southeast Austin. His parents, Jaime and Elvira, still work, his dad driving in from Wimberley every day. “He’s like my grandma; he’s never going to stop working,” Picos says.
His late grandfather, Manuel, started a tortilla factory in Del Rio in the 1950s. Tomasa, now almost 80, doesn't technically still work, but Picos says she sneaks back to the production line any time she can.
“There were times when it was embarrassing telling people at school that my family makes tortillas," he says. “As I got older, I saw how much both of my parents put into this company and it gave me a sense of pride.”
After serving in the Navy, Jaime Picos and his wife, Elvira, returned to Del Rio and eventually decided to move to Austin.
Having lived in several places outside South Texas, they knew that the demand for tortillas was rising and saw an opportunity to carry on the family business in Austin. They set up a small shop off Briarcliff Boulevard and, using equipment borrowed from relatives, they started making tortillas every day starting at 4 a.m.
“This was the early 1980s,” the younger Picos says. “Austin was a different place than it is now. … They would produce until noon. My mom would go home, and my dad would go to restaurants, selling whatever he could to whoever would buy it.”
Their first child, A.J., was born in 1987, and that’s around the time their parents hired their first employee, who is now Luis’ godfather. Jaime's mom and dad moved to Austin to help with Fiesta Tortillas. “We have some deep roots here in Austin,” he says.
By the time Luis came around, his parents had moved the company to a small building off East Fifth Street. That’s where he has memories of hanging out with his brother around all those machines used to grind the corn and mix the masa.
He laughs as he recalls the memory. “No one got hurt,” he says.
His parents eventually moved the family to Pflugerville, where he graduated from high school and then went on to work in the tech industry.
“The factory was able to allow them to raise me and my siblings,” he says. “I wanted to learn more about the business that gave me the life that I have.”
Picos says they’ve had some of the same customers for decades. A few years ago, they were up to 150 employees to help manage a large co-packing client, who hired Fiesta to produce their tortillas and chips to be sold under another brand.
In 2017, he started working for the company for what he thought would be a short stint: “I didn’t see myself working there for long; I just wanted to see how things work.”
Four years and one pandemic later, Luis and his two siblings, including sister Natalia, have learned how to deal with all the same issues their parents did, plus a few new ones. “I wear a lot of different hats," he says. "Sometimes I’m working with customers or helping employees. Sometimes I’m helping my dad open a PDF.”
The biggest issue facing the company is longtime customers shuttering their restaurants. “We’ve seen a lot of our older customers close their doors, which is always hard,” Picos says. “You get to know someone for so long and to see them hang up the gloves, it hurts.”
In 2001, the factory moved to its current home off Burleson, where they could expand the production facility to serve customers all the way to San Antonio. These days, they have clients as far away as New York, where a taco stand wanting “the authentic stuff” pays for Fiesta to overnight tortillas to them.
Austin restaurants have been opening at a quick pace, even during the pandemic, but fewer and fewer of them are serving tortillas, or if they do, they are making their own.
Sales slumped significantly during the last year, so much so that they had to lay off about half of the company. “We’ve had to make a lot of hard decisions with employees,” Picos says. “But things are starting to pick back up.”
Primarily a restaurant supplier, Fiesta Tortillas has been in Whole Foods for many years. The company’s preservative-free product was one of the only “clean label” tortillas, which means it fits Whole Foods’ rigorous ingredient requirements.
They have a small store at the factory at 3800 Promontory Point, where customers can buy chips, spices, taco shells and freshly ground masa from non-GMO corn, which is one of the most popular items, Picos says.
“My goal is to continue to take care of what my parents have started,” he says. “They worked really hard in creating this. I work with all my siblings, and I have other family members who work here, too. My grandma, my uncle, my cousins, a second cousin. It is a family business. I’m thankful I get to see them every day.”
Producing, or co-packing, other companies’ products hasn’t decreased during the pandemic, so Picos says they have been investing in new manufacturing equipment so they can expand the services they offer. He says he’s surprised at some of the new food ideas he hears about from fellow entrepreneurs: mesquite flour tortillas, fried vegetable chips, low-carb everything.
Some of his employees tease him sometimes about the fact that they’ve known him his whole life: “They’ll say, 'I remember when you were just a baby and now here you are telling me what to do.'”
But the middle sibling says he’s earned their respect. “I’m thankful for them just as much as my parents are," he says. "Without our employees, we wouldn’t be here still today. We appreciate them and do our best to take care of them. They are still here for a reason.”
The 35,000-square-foot manufacturing space churns corn and flour products from two different spaces so there's no cross-contamination between the two, as many as 2 million corn tortillas and 500,000 flour tortillas each day at the peak of production. Luis Picos says he hopes things have turned around now that the restaurant industry is starting to get back into swing.
“It’s never felt like a burden on me to continue this, but it’s getting more difficult to financially survive here with how quickly the city is changing. We started in Austin, we grew in Austin and we would like to stay in Austin.”
Addie Broyles writes about food and cooking for the Austin American-Statesman. You can follow her at @broylesa or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.