by Megan Giller • Photography by Knoxy
Jaime Picos comes from a tortilla family. That sounds silly, since tortillas are to Mexico and Texas what bread is to Europe and rice is to Asia. But Picos’ family specializes in the round beauties: His parents owned a small tortilla factory in Del Rio, Texas (a border town), for 15 years. And when Picos and his wife, Elvira, moved to Austin in the early 1980s, they knew exactly what to do—make tortillas!
They launched Fiesta Tortilla Factory in 1984 with a 6½-inch flour tortilla, handmade, Picos proudly boasts, without additives or preservatives, from five simple ingredients, just like his mother used to make at home. “We were ahead of our time,” Picos says—noting that Fiesta hit on the public’s growing interest in preservative-free foods. And because they delivered their tortillas fresh to clients every day or every other day, they didn’t need to extend the shelf life. “That’s how my parents did it,” Picos explains. “And that’s what we wanted to do, too. Restaurants, in particular, took notice because our tortillas were always warm and soft.”
Though Fiesta sold to grocery stores at first, it has long concentrated on the wholesale restaurant market—now selling both flour and corn tortillas, as well as corn chips, directly to 70 percent of restaurants in Central Texas. Customers, such as Mother’s Cafe, have been loyal for 30 years and Fiesta is still going strong. That’s especially remarkable when every other tortilleria in Austin has gone out of business (most recently El Lago) or relocated (most recently El Milagro).
Picos claims that his company isn’t special and that it was just the luck of the draw. But happy fans are quick to point to the Picos’ good business sense, commitment to the community and high-quality food, instead. You probably love Fiesta’s products and don’t even know it. The addictive chips at Guero’s? Fiesta. The chips that hoist Kerbey Queso? Fiesta. And those famous warm tortillas at Tacodeli? Fiesta again.
All of Fiesta’s corn products are GMO- and gluten-free, and the company doesn’t shy away from special requests. They developed an organic corn tortilla just for Tacodeli and they’ve worked with Austin Independent School District to fit specific nutritional guidelines. Currently, Picos is taking it to the next level with plans for an organic corn chip recipe and a gluten-free manufacturing facility to completely eliminate possible cross-contamination and better serve Central Texas’ need for gluten-free goods. Central Texas is where the focus remains. “We don’t want to be the Mission Tortillas of the world,” Picos says. “We like where we’re at, and we want to be part of the Austin restaurant scene.” And they want to do it responsibly. When El Lago closed shop recently, Picos took on only as many of its clients as he felt his company could realistically handle. And though Picos fields almost daily requests from companies wanting to buy him out or expand Fiesta’s reach to a national audience, he has remained loyal to his company and to this area.
Though it started small, Fiesta now boasts 102 employees, many of whom Picos greets daily in the factory where products are made. The facility also co-packs three other products for a few local companies, including Paqui and Primizie. In fact, Fiesta’s co-packing reputation is so strong that one new client is waiting to launch a product until Fiesta’s gluten-free facility is ready, simply to be able to work with the brand. In light of all the successes, Picos says family still comes first. He says his dad, who passed away a few years ago, was in awe of how the business had developed, and his mom is not only in awe but also works at the factory. “She’s seventy-four years old and a hundred miles per hour,” Pico says with a laugh—noting that she often gets to work before he does. And what does the Fiesta matriarch do? “Whatever she wants,” he says wryly. “Because she’s my mom.”
Now Picos is prepping for the next generation; his 27-year-old son, Alvaro, has been working for the company for three years. “We’re polishing him up and getting him ready to be our successor.” Yet Picos admits that, much like his mother, he’ll probably still be working in the factory alongside his son, even well into his 70s.