Flipping a Niche

When the opportunity to buy a small tortilla manufacturing company, or tortillería, presented itself back in 1978, Puerto Rican Nelson Guerra jumped in feet first. Over time, the company grew and added the distribution of tortilla-related products to its list of services. In 2000, having sold the original tortillería in 1992, Guerra and one of his sons formed Isabella Foods, and in 2001, began doing business with the goal of eventually becoming a serious player in the production and distribution of Mexican foods. With distribution in West Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado, the El Paso, Texas-based company is now well on its way.

“I like to say that I come from the university of life. When I graduated from high school, I enrolled in short courses on accounting and business, [but]I didn’t get the whole university experience. I eventually began working in the clothing industry in my hometown of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.

Then, in 1978, I met someone from El Paso, Texas, got married, and went there to live. I wanted to continue working in the clothing industry, and I thought I would be able to, but it just wasn’t possible. There weren’t many jobs at that time. Then one day, I found an opportunity outside my field—I bought a small tortillería, a tortilla-manufacturing company. I started very, very small, and the company grew until we got into the distribution of tortilla-related products. I had that business for about 14 years, and I’ve been working in the food industry since then.

Isabella Foods was founded in December 2001. We are dedicated to manufacturing Mexican foods, including tortillas, salsas, and prepared foods like tamales, flautas, corn chips, chiles rellenos, and more. As president of the company, what I try to do is find a niche in which we can compete effectively. Take our tortillas, for example. We haven’t seen a similar product with this particular taste. The special way we process the corn makes it different from what you usually find on the market. The tortillas are more like home-cooked tortillas, with fewer preservatives. That’s what makes them so good. Little by little, they’ve become very popular. We also have a green salsa that’s considered number one in greater El Paso. You can go to a supermarket in El Paso and ask for the most popular green salsa, and they’ll point you to ours. We’ve made a point of trying to make the best-tasting salsa that people will like and buy. That’s a niche we’ve found that we work well in.

Another niche we are in is private-label branding. We work with distributors who buy our products and sell it under their own name—we put their label on our product, but they distribute it. Our product is a little more expensive than our competitors’, but what our customers get in terms of service and the quality of the product is superior. That’s where we differentiate ourselves from the competition, and that’s why retailers like Walmart and convenience stores like 7-Eleven like to do business with us.

When I think about young Latinos going out onto the job market for the first time, I want to offer them three pieces of advice that I gave my three sons. First, be sure to do something you love, and always believe in what you do. Second, don’t attach so much importance to the economics of it. In other words, be prepared to make sacrifices in order to succeed. People nowadays invest themselves in making the money right now and not so much in thinking ahead and long-term goals. Last, I always tell them never to give up. Plenty of people start projects and businesses, but they don’t persevere. Perseverance leads to success.”

*This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated to English.