Hispanic cuisine is still on the rise. According to Nielsen, half of all U.S. population growth from 2012 to 2015 came from Hispanics, while the U.S. Census expects the country’s Latino population to more than double within the next two generations.
All this while Hispanics already represent nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population and will likely account for a quarter of the population by 2040.
It’s no surprise that the foods and flavors from Hispanic cultures are thriving. A September InStore feature detailed how supermarket retailers are serving the hunger for Hispanic food with their prepared foods departments.
But the backbone behind Mexican food — the timeless, versatile tortilla — isn’t always easily or efficiently prepared in the store. That’s where a company like Harbar enters, and shines.
Harbar, a family-owned company based in Canton, Massachusetts, produces a wide range of tortillas for natural, independent and conventional grocery stores — as well as other foodservice outlets — throughout the U.S. and Europe.
“The way we’re seeing the Mexican food market is sort of like the Italian food market,” says Harbar CEO Cheque Montemayor. “It’s here to stay.”
In the same way you can find pizza and spaghetti everywhere while also finding elevated Italian cuisine, he says, the Mexican category is becoming very popular and diverse.
“You see this reinvigoration and evolution of Mexican food, whether it’s with gourmet restaurants, trendier small chains, even the taco truck movement,” he says. “It all puts a different spin of excitement on it. And of course, you have the established brands and established consumption situations that have been here for a long while. They’re here to stay.”
Whatever the situation or location, Harbar says it has a tortilla to match.
Montemayor stresses the importance of authenticity when producing tortillas. Unlike some other products, a quality, genuine tortilla can provide greater potential than something that doesn’t carry those same characteristics.
Montemayor says Harbar’s Maria and Ricardo’s line — which is used heavily in supermarket prepared foods departments — reflects this.
“In the case of Maria and Ricardo’s — which is a brand we have been nurturing over the years and hope to continue pushing — it’s a brand that we feel has it all,” he says. “It has the authenticity we bring into this, through our family heritage and our employees. We have our roots in Mexico. I was born there.”
Maria and Ricardo’s is geared toward natural, organic and non-GMO markets. Montemayor says it’s the leading brand in that segment and performs well both at retail and in foodservice applications.
Wrappy is Harbar’s foodservice-only band. It is geared toward deli shops and wrap manufacturers. Mayan Farm carries a more mainstream, ethnic focus, Montemayor says. It is sold both at retail and in foodservice applications.
“Both Wrappy and Maria and Ricardo’s tend to be used a lot in supermarkets on the prepared foods side of things,” Montemayor says. “They work well for both warm applications and for cold sandwiches as well. We work with both pretty actively within that space.”
He points out the importance of the relatively clean labels across the board.
“I think the cleanliness of the product is very important,” Montemayor says. “All of our products are made with as real of ingredients as we can get. All of our product lines are non-GMO. We have some organic varieties. Those are hot trends right now.
“When it comes to products that have those features, which are adopted by supermarkets more and more, we have an unparalleled portfolio. I will venture to say that, both on the retail and foodservice side, we have the widest variety on the market. We have options in all sizes and functionalities.”
The importance of options
Tortillas are used for a wide range of applications, Montemayor says, so offering an equally wide range of options is important.
“We try to play across the whole spectrum in terms of consumption occasions, while also keeping an eye on the nutritional components,” he says. “We have everyday types of recipes, good for the basic consumption occasion, but we also have some more enhanced, better-for-you options that adhere to certain niches that are growing in strength and demand.”
Harbar’s 12-inch tortillas, for example, work well for a burrito or an oversized wrap. On the other end of the spectrum are the company’s four-inch tortillas that are ideal for sliders, snacking occasions and, especially, the popular street taco movement.
Montemayor again references the changing world of Italian food as a point of reference.
“It goes through stages of evolution,” he says. “Again, what you see happening in the Mexican food category is what you’ve seen Italian food do. You have all these new and exciting products that utilize tortillas, but then, of course, you have your established brands and consumption occasions and certain restaurant chains that have been here for a long while. Those things are here to stay.”
What this evolution is creating, he says, are more and more retailers and foodservice operators who want something new.
“They want something clean and they want it new,” Montemayor says. “We like to be right there in the first row to be offering what we have in our portfolio.
He says operators are asking for cleaner labels, particular flavors, more spice, and smaller size options. Some are asking for corn options that can perform as well as a flour tortilla, with the flexibility to hold ingredients over a few hours rather than just a few minutes.
“We’re happy to be active in all those situations,” he says. “One thing that is easily forgotten: at the end of the day, for us, we’re always trying to manage and curb our enthusiasm of offering something new. We want to take our time. We want to make sure that before we offer it, before it graduates out of our kitchen, that the product performs.”
In the tortilla category, that means the product doesn’t break and will hold ingredients well. “At the end of the day, the tortilla is a carrier,” Montemayor says. “We take it very seriously. It’s important to test the product and make sure it has a very high ability of holding the ingredients for the most common recipes.”
Harbar maintains side-by-side production facilities, with the main building encompassing 80,000 square feet of state-of-the-art equipment.
“We had some room for growth and we are very happy with the infrastructure we have,” Montemayor says. “We’re always trying to develop our partnership on the distribution side.”
The goal, he says, is to widen the company’s geographic reach. Harbar’s products do have a presence all the way from the company’s home in Massachusetts to the West Coast, but Montemayor thinks that can be improved upon in the next year.
“We are quite active in the Northeast while very actively looking at partnerships that can allow us to efficiently and effectively have nationwide distribution,” he says.
While Harbar can be viewed as a commissary of sorts — producing fresh food for use in supermarket prepared foods departments — Montemayor says part of the company’s growth strategy is targeting commissaries that are making wraps, burritos and other tortilla-based foods for those same retailers.
This means a continued focus on R&D.
“This is where you’re trying to branch out into new products,” Montemayor says. “Whether you’re looking into either a blue corn tortilla or a sprouted-grain tortilla or a gluten-free tortilla, it all requires quite a bit of research and development. We are happy to have a team of food technologists. They interact with our marketing team and our sales team and our culinary team to come up with prototypes in the kitchen and in the lab and, finally, in the plant.”
The R&D department is also tasked with improving the company’s established products, whether that’ s improving on the oils and flours used to produce the tortillas or finding new ways to ensure more consistency in size.
“In general, we want to stay on top of the trend of making sure the product is as fresh as possible. That’s what supermarkets are looking for,” Montemayor says. “We are very intrigued in developing our partnerships so that we can get to the consumer with a fresh wrap or a fresh sandwich or burrito and grow that consumer audience wider.”