On a chilly winter morning in Tucson, I meet Chef Abel — founder of Chef Abel’s Tortillas — and his grandmother, Sandra Robles, at Five Points, a restaurant-slash-market south of Tucson’s booming downtown. It’s early on a Sunday, so I’m tired, but 11-year old Chef Abel is really tired, struggling to not yawning during our breakfast conversation.
They never said running your own business was easy.
Started as a summer project, Chef Abel has been running a small tortilla startup that is focused on using heirloom local grains and making the humble tortilla healthy, and it’s quickly grown into one of Tucson’s beloved brands. Each week he makes hundreds of tortillas and sells them at various spots around town. They sell out within minutes and more and more businesses are trying to carry his heirloom tortillas.
Over pancakes, eggs, and coffee, I talked to Chef Abel and Sandra about running a business, how Abel juggles his busy schedule, and his goals for the future.
Brianna Plaza: What’s it like to run a business?
Sandra Robles: He came up the idea of using the heritage grains and we developed the recipe with the ancient grains. I do the prep then he finishes it. Now he’s so big he has employees.
As we taught him the process of running a business, we developed a recipe so it was more tata (grandpa) and vegan friendly. Our goal was to make a healthier, better tortilla but not lose the flavor or the texture.
His siblings didn’t want to be involved. I asked if he wanted to start a business and what he wanted to do, and the first thing he said was he wanted to make tortillas.
Brianna Plaza: Did you ever think it would get this big?
Chef Abel: I thought it was just going to be a summer project, but it turned out to be huge. I plan to keep going.
Brianna Plaza: How did your tortillas end up being sold at Five Points and Barrio Bread?
Sandra Robles: We were looking for a place to sell and we couldn’t get in to the summer markets. So Don (of Barrio Bread) invited us to sell in his store on Saturdays. We started selling out right away. We like to partner with other similar brands: people who care about ingredients.
Brianna Plaza: You seemed to have a bit of overnight fame. Tell me about that.
Sandra Robles: The Prostate Cancer Foundation challenged him to a pushup challenge, so Channel 4 came out and did a story on it. They showed him making the tortillas and he talked a little about his business, which really launched us because people wanted to buy the tortillas.
Brianna Plaza: You make all these tortillas in your home. How does that work?
Sandra Robles: The tortilla business fits under the AZ cottage license which means you can make them out of your home. We can’t ship orders out of Arizona bc of the health license.
Brianna Plaza: Why did you choose to stick with local White Sonora Wheat?
Sandra Robles: It’s important for us to keep the family traditions alive. Use the original grains and keep the recipe alive from Sonora. We call them heirloom tortillas because the tortilla originated in this area; it’s ground-zero for tortillas. It’s our heirloom, it is our history.
Brianna Plaza: What do your friends think?
Chef Abel: They keep telling me “bring some tortillas.” They keep asking me for a job. People at school think it’s cool. I’ve learned that it’s hard work starting your own business.
Brianna Plaza: Seems like you do a lot, how do you have time to do it all?
Chef Abel: Football season is over. I’m on break from school this week.
Brianna Plaza: Are there other products you want to work on?
Chef Abel: We have hot sauce and all the revenue goes to Prostate Cancer Foundation.
Sandra Robles: We started with the mini tortillas bc they were easy for him to roll out. We were rolling them out and they were weirdly shaped, so I bought him cookie cutters. He’s able to roll them out fast then cut a few at a time. But after we cut them out there are the extra bits left over that everyone loves, so we’ve thought about selling that.
I would love to make a tortilla kit that comes with everything: Hayden Flour Mills flour, salt from St Felipe in the Sea of Cortez, a comal, and avocado oil. We also get a lot of restaurants that just want the balls and they can make them in-house fresh. We need time to develop that. But if we can automate making the balls, it might help us.
Brianna Plaza: What’s your favorite recipe to use with them?
Chef Abel: Peach roll-ups. And quesadillas.
Brianna Plaza: So where do you see your business next year?
Chef Abel: I hope that we could just make a million tortillas. I don’t know how much I’ve made.
Sandra Robles: We produce about 400 a night. We’ve been doing this not even 6 months. At the end of the year we have to pause and say where are we, what do we want to do? There’s an opportunity here.
Brianna Plaza: What are your goals?
Chef Abel: By the time I’m 16 I want to get a car and I want to go to high school at University High. And then after I want to go to the Navy college. And hopefully I want to go in the Navy and fly jets. I want to be in the Marines or the Navy. Next year I want to be in band. It’s all about family, school, business.
Brianna Plaza: Did you get your chef’s coat when you started or did you have to earn it?
Chef Abel: When I started we got it made.
Sandra Robles: He would spend his summers with us in Utah. When I owned my restaurant Abel would help out and all the chef’s would call him Chef Abel. The “Chef Abel” thing came before the tortilla business. He worked 3 years for us and earned his coat.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Abel “do you sometimes secretly burn them so you can eat them?” And with a sheepish grin on his face and a quiet chuckle, he answers “yes.”
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as the Global Email Marketing Manager at Global Citizen, and tries to travel as much as she can.