Blizzard spurs temporary tortilla shortage

Local tortilla factories say they're just now catching up to demand.

February 7, 2011

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Tortilla trucks are back at work after the snowstorm.

Chicago’s third heaviest snowfall in history shut down schools and businesses and stranded drivers…

But there was a bigger crisis in many Mexican neighborhoods of the city.

The emergency has passed. But last Wednesday, with 20 inches of snow on the ground and more blowing around, it was another story in communities from Pilsen to Berwyn, Cicero to Waukegan.

I’ll let Diane Laguna and Miriam Roman explain:

DIANE LAGUNA: I went to the Fairplay the day of the storm—when I went in there I noticed that all the shelves where they stack the tortillas, they were completely gone. There were no tortillas.

ROMAN: They go to Jimenez—the Mexican store. “I’m looking for tortillas,” and…“No more tortillas.”

That’s right, no tortillas.

Normally, Chicago factories turn out millions of fresh tortillas a day and deliver them to stores here--sometimes twice a day. That way, the soft, paper-wrapped packages are still warm for customers.

So when tortilla workers couldn’t get to the factories Wednesday because of the snow, and when the trucks couldn’t make deliveries, the effects were felt fast.

SANDOVAL: Nobody had any.

Sabas Sandoval runs a corner grocery store in Pilsen. It’s located across the street from a tortilla factory, so he doesn’t usually sell too many tortillas himself—a modest 80 dozen a day. That’s two boxes.

SANDOVAL: That day I bought four, and they were gone in like—half an hour. And everybody was looking for some, because everybody ran out, Walgreens ran out, the other stores--big stores were closed.

Sandoval says once the corn tortillas ran out, customers started picking up the far inferior flour tortillas.

SANDOVAL: Anything, even tostadas! Even the chips. My shelves was empty.

He even ran out of the cornmeal people use to make tortillas by hand.

SANDOVAL: They were taking that.

PILCHER: Well, I mean a tortilla is just enormously important. It’s the staple. It’s just fundamental to the Mexican notion of what a proper meal is.

Jeffrey Pilcher is a historian at the University of Minnesota who studies Mexican food and culture. There’s no equivalent to the tortilla in the American diet, he says.

So on Thursday, the day after the storm, with area tortilla factories humming at full steam again, customers showed up from all over the suburbs and out of state.

At El Milagro on 26th Street—that’s a retail store for one of Chicago’s biggest tortilla brands—the line of customers stretched out the door and down the block. Jesus Rivera is an employee there. He says his store sells nearly a quarter million tortillas a day. They’ve just barely caught up with demand since the blizzard.

RIVERA: Usually we have some until 6 or 7 o’clock at night, at least. Those days we were out –probably three or four times throughout the day we would run out of tortillas for an hour.

At a smaller tortilla factory tucked into the Pilsen neighborhood… employee Roberto Torres filled orders at the counter today.

LUTTON: So in your opinion, what would be a bigger crisis—to be stuck on Lake Shore Drive because of the blizzard? Or to have no tortillas.

TORRES: I guess to have no tortilla—there’s no food.

As he spoke, the smell of cooking corn wafted out of the factory and over the snow banks, the machines inside turning out warm tortillas.