Issue Winter 10
As one of three brothers raised in Mexico by missionary parents, Phil Calhoun has a deep understanding of Hispanic culture. Calhoun is a partner in La Tortilleria, a North Carolina-based Mexican food product distributor along with his older brothers Nate and Dan. The three spent 15 years of their childhood in Veracruz, Mexico, with their parents before returning to North Carolina to finish their education, he says.
“We relate very well to the cultural nuances of both Hispanic and Anglo people,” Calhoun explains. “There aren’t very many Mexican food distributors that can say that.”
The company distributes products sourced from Mexico as well as master distribution companies and producers in Texas and California. La Tortilleria’s distribution base includes North Carolina, Georgia, New Jersey, Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. The company owns a fleet of 20 trucks and outsources distribution to other transportation companies for clients further away from its base, Calhoun says.
Three of those states – Georgia, New Jersey and Maryland – are new territory for the company. “As a whole, we have an aggressive strategy to expand into more territories, and expanded our territory and sales by 23 percent this year,” he adds.
The company offers bilingual service and next-day delivery. “We try to offer the best service possible at a reasonable price,” Calhoun says. “We offer good value to our customers.”
In addition to its Hispanic food distribution business, La Tortilleria also offers a complete line of 38,000 American food products it distributes to smaller stores. “One of our strategies is to always look for new items,” Calhoun says.
A Rare Animal
Many of the Hispanic food products distributed by La Tortilleria are under their own brand, Cuervito Morado, Spanish for “little purple crow.” The product line’s tag line is “irresistibly authentic.”
Cuervito Morado products include:
- Corn and flour tortillas in sizes suitable for burritos, tacos and fajitas;
- Baby añejo enchilado cheese
- Yogurt drinks in strawberry banana, mango, peach, pina colada and strawberry flavors
- Queso fresco cheese
- Longaniza and chorizo sausages
- Oaxaca cheese
- Chicharrones (pork rinds)
- Imitation butter
The idea for the name came from the company’s desire to have a cartoon character to brand its products with.
As crows are generally associated with corn because of their penchant for eating crops and corn is a major product ingredient, the bird was an easy choice for a mascot, Calhoun says.
The color came from a designer who showed the Calhoun brothers a design sketch with the crow colored purple. “We liked it, so it stuck,” Calhoun says.
Product packaging also asks customers “that if they’ve ever seen a purple crow, let us know,” he adds.
Major retail customers include Walmart, Kmart, Costco and Lowe’s Food Stores. In addition to its Cuervito Morado line, La Tortilleria also represents a number of important Hispanic market brands including Goya, Maseca, Lala, Jarritos, El Mexicano and La Costena.
Brothers in Business
The Calhoun brothers have been in business together since 1986, when they founded a landscaping business, Calhoun says.
In 1995, they launched a tortilla making business to address the needs of the Winston-Salem area’s growing Hispanic population, who were unable to find authentic style tortillas in the area. “There were different kinds of tortillas out there, but none were authentic, ground corn tortillas,” he adds.
The brothers took a trip to Mexico and learned the Nixtamal tortilla-making method, which involved cooking and grinding corn, as opposed to using corn flour. “This gives the tortilla a different and unique flavor,” Calhoun says.
After purchasing the machinery needed to make tortillas, the Calhouns set up shop in a small rural warehouse they rented in 1996. Food distribution followed in 1997, necessitating a move into a larger warehouse. Even with the food distribution and tortilla making businesses, the landscaping business continued, he added.
An additional business venture, a store, opened in 2001. The tortilla factory closed in 2003, and the store and landscaping business were sold in 2006 to allow the brothers to devote their energies to food distribution full-time, Calhoun says.
The Calhouns were assisted in their early business endeavors by small business loans overseen by the nonprofit Center for Community Self-Help, a community development lender, credit union, and real estate developer that works with people “traditionally underserved by conventional markets,” the organization says.
The organization has loaned more than $392 million to date. “Our vision is an America of thriving families, businesses and communities, where everyone has economic opportunity,” the Center adds.
When the brothers aren’t working to grow their business, they participate in a number of community activities and charity work. Most of these activities are true to their origins as sons of missionaries, as they are church-based programs, he adds.