CANTON, MASS. — To Harbar L.L.C., manufacturer of authentic Mexican tortilla products, clean label isn’t just a trend. It’s the company’s origin story.
“Nowadays there’s a big movement for a lot of food manufacturing companies to start cleaning up their recipes and labels, but for us, that’s how it all started thirty-plus years ago,” said Ezequiel “Cheque” Montemayor, chief executive officer of Harbar. “Real, simple, wholesome ingredients — that’s how we started. From the very beginning this company has been keeping that very high up in its priorities and in its guidelines. Our product needs to have as little in it as possible and be as simple as possible.”
Founded in 1986 by Mexican immigrants, Harbar is tethered to tradition when it comes to how it makes its tortillas. And the traditional way is also the simplest way, Mr. Montemayor said.
“As you try to do an authentic product, you start from the most basic of traditions, and that’s how tortillas are,” he said. “When I was a little boy growing up in Mexico, I saw that’s how tortillas are made. They have very simple ingredients, very clean ingredients. It’s in our fabric and our DNA. So at first it just kind of happened by a natural progression, but now it’s becoming a sense of purpose and a commitment to excellence in our products.”
Harbar’s commitment to clean extends beyond simple ingredients in its premium brand, Maria and Ricardo’s. Named after the company’s founders, Maria and Ricardo’s tortillas are all Non-GMO Project verified and contain no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors. The brand also offers a line of U.S.D.A. certified organic tortillas.
But getting these products verified and certified organic — and keeping them that way — has not been easy, Mr. Montemayor said. Such certifications are a constantly moving target in the industry.
“We have been trying to formulate and respect and understand and adhere to guidelines in the industry like non-G.M.O. guidelines and organic certification,” Mr. Montemayor said. “A lot of these are becoming challenging because they keep evolving. You have to keep up with everything, and it’s a continuous challenge to stay up to date. You have evolving standards, and the certifying bodies are evolving and learning. Something organic 10 years ago could not be classified as organic now — you have to make some changes. We’re working on that every day.”
The Maria and Ricardo’s brand also offers the only tortilla in Harbar’s product portfolio that is gluten-free, a segment the company views as a significant growth opportunity.
“We feel like the market is ready for a second generation — a second wave of gluten-free,” Mr. Montemayor said. “We were part of the first wave. At first the priority was to just make sure there was something to eat in every category that is gluten-free. But then it needs to taste good. Just because its gluten-free doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice in taste. We feel there’s an excellent opportunity for us and the industry in general to evolve to a second wave of gluten-free where flavor is paramount, where the experience is key. That applies to both retail and in food service.”
All three of Harbar’s brands — Maria and Ricardo’s, Mayan Farm and Wrappy — play in the food service space. Its tortillas pop up in a variety of restaurant offerings, Mr. Montemayor said.
“I’m always surprised to see how a simple product can make its way into a lot of parts of the menu in a restaurant,” he said. “You can see our product in the appetizers section, being chopped and fried so you can have nachos or a kind of pizza. You look in the sandwich section and in the soup section, it’s there. It’s in Southwestern salads. I’m always curious about what happens next. Who knows? We may end up in the dessert menu at some point in the future.”
Also in Harbar’s future plans is increasing distribution, which Mr. Montemayor described as “one of the biggest hurdles the company has had.” Harbar tortillas are sold mostly on the East coast, including in some Whole Foods Market locations. Harbar hopes to expand its partnership with Whole Foods and forge new relationships with other retailers.
“The country is big, and the opportunities are big,” Mr. Montemayor said. “It’s a large market, so we always feel the pressure of having to get the product in more geographies. We are hoping to make our product available in many more states — we are looking at national distribution. We are looking for the right partnerships to make sure every city in the United States has our product. It’s hard, but we think there’s a way, and we’re working on that.”
Harbar also is pursuing innovation within the tortilla category. The company keeps a finger on the pulse of industry trends, one of which is a shrinking of tortilla sizes.
“I see more opportunity for smaller versions of tortillas to enable tacos as opposed to burritos,” Mr. Montemayor said. “The burrito is here to stay, but I think most folks are feeling now that they can do tacos easier, and it’s kind of fun because you can eat a smaller portion and have variety rather than having one big portion of one particular dish.”
Mr. Montemayor also sees more tortillas with health and wellness attributes, such as those made with sprouted grains.
“General health trends are impacting the tortilla market,” Mr. Montemayor said. “The other trend I see is that the industry is trying to make sure the quality keeps improving. We certainly are, and we think there’s something to be said about a tortilla that tastes good even on its own. It’s not only something you put cheese and sauce in, it’s something you should be able to eat by itself as well.”
While Harbar is committed to the constant improvement of its products, Mr. Montemayor said the company must always focus on the fundamentals.
“We like to try to do something new with the tortilla category, but we also want to be able to speak to the basics,” he said. “It’s always very tempting to do a new flavor or a tortilla with a new nutritional component and so on … but there’s some basics you want to cover in the category. You want products to be flexible, and, whatever the dish is, you want to guarantee a great taco experience or a great burrito experience or a great wrap experience. Sometimes it’s very easy to just focus on a particular attribute of the product because its new or fashionable, but at the end of the day we make tortillas, and they are a carrier for other ingredients.”
Creating those carriers in a great-tasting, simple and authentic Mexican way will always be at the heart of Harbar’s operations, Mr. Montemayor said. Since its inception, the company has remained in the hands of Mexican families committed to that cause.
“The concept of tortillas and high-quality tortillas has meaning in our family,” he said. “My father has been in this industry for a long time, and we’re following in the footsteps of his legacy. We will keep working on sharing this treasure of making a great tortilla and sharing it with consumers.”