A taste of Mexico in Maine

Fresh tortilla biz adds value to locally grown corn
By KATE MCCARTY  |  March 28, 2014

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El Rayo Taqueria in Portland prides itself on serving authentic Mexican fare using fresh and local ingredients. But until recently, the workhorse of many El Rayo dishes — the tortilla — was bought from an out-of-state purveyor. Enter Lynne Rowe with her new tortilla business, Tortilleria Pachanga.

El Rayo’s kitchen manager Elena McMahan reports Rowe’s yellow corn tortillas, which she just started serving in the past week, are a hit with the restaurant’s customers: “[T]he difference is definitely that Lynne makes them from total scratch — the process of soaking the corn with lime overnight, grinding it into masa, and making the tortillas almost daily makes all the difference in the world!”

Rowe had the idea to make her own tortillas from locally-grown corn after traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico. A lifelong Spanish teacher, Rowe was inspired by the open-air markets where women knead fresh cheese and press tortillas made from masa, a corn dough. Rowe had plenty of experience making tortillas from dried masa at home and with school groups. But she struggled to find fresh masa to recreate the authentic flavor she enjoyed in Mexico. So Rowe decided to make her own, ordering a 50-pound bag of organic, Maine-grown yellow dent corn (from Sandy River Farms in Farmington) through the Crown O’ Maine Cooperative. Armed with a hand grinder, she began the laborious process of making fresh masa.

First Rowe soaks the corn kernels in food-grade lime, an ancient process called nixtamalization that breaks down the kernels’ coating and makes its nutrients readily available. The kernels are then soft enough to grind, which Rowe does with a stone grinder. The resulting paste is masa, which is then portioned into balls and pressed into tortillas. The finished product is gluten-free, low-sodium, organic, and high in fiber and vitamins, in particular B3. But above all, it’s tasty.

Rowe’s locally-made tortillas are part of a growing sector of food manufacturing businesses in Maine: entrepreneurs making value-added products. Value-added products are foods that have been processed to increase their value to the consumer, like turning strawberries into jam or grains into flour. The term encompasses specialty foods like gourmet sauces and spice rubs, but also pantry staples, like oils, dried fruit, and nut butters.

University of Maine Cooperative Extension Business and Economics specialist Jim McConnan says that as of 2011, there were 370 self-employed food manufacturers in Maine. This sector has grown by 50 percent in the last 10 years, whereas the number of large food manufacturing businesses has stayed relatively stable in that time.

“I’m excited about opportunities and possibilities for Maine people to follow their passion and create things and at the same time... bring more money in to their families and their communities than they expend,” McConnan says. “As long as they’re business-savvy, they have half a chance, particularly with value-added [products].”

Rowe has expanded her tortilla operation into a production space on Industrial Way in Portland next to established brewers Allagash Brewing and up-and-comers Foundation and Bissell Brothers Brewing Companies. A new machine, purchased with funding from a successful Indiegogo campaign, is capable of pressing and cooking 12,000 tortillas per hour. Rowe has learned to talk about “fixed overhead costs” and “profit margins,” while ensuring she stays true to her mission of using Maine-grown corn to produce fresh tortillas. Rowe hopes her business will help the Maine corn industry — in particular increasing the availability of heirloom varieties like the Abenaki Flint corn grown at Songbird Farm in Sparks. But above all, any tortilla connoisseur will appreciate Rowe’s products for their authentic flavor and texture.

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