Mexican immigrant Erasmo Ponce never thought he would be known as “El rey de la tortilla” when he emigrated to the United States in 1987.

His inspiring story is bursting at the seams with ambition and determination. The Puebla, Mexico native left the small town of Chinantla three decades ago, eventually naming his U.S. tortilla empire after it.

Loading the player...

He started working as a driver transporting tortillas in New York and launched Tortilleria Chinantla in 1992. Since then, he has produced more than a million tortillas a day. Supplying most of the country with tortillas taqueras, tortillas gorditas and chips.

In an exclusive interview with mitú, Ponce explained he is still working “day to day” and “looking to continue growing and bringing us delicious “surprises.”

From a small town in Chinantla to founding his own tortilleria

Used with permission from Tortilleria Chinantla

Ponce’s life began in Puebla, Mexico, in the small town of Chinantla. The future founder of Tortilleria Chinatla tells mitú he remembers thinking about saving money and achieving a better life.

In 1987 he moved to the United States for better opportunities, starting out as a driver distributing tortillas. Although he describes the experience as arduous, it was a learning opportunity for him. On the job, he learned the tortilla business inside and out.

“I worked as a driver distributing tortillas. I was 31 years old,” he says. “It was a learning experience, I learned distribution routes, I met a lot of people, and socialized with the people that bought tortillas from me.”

Soon after, Ponce got the idea to start Tortilleria Chinantla, but it didn’t just “occur” to him.

He explained to mitú that it was a “well-thought-out plan, leaving [his] job as a driver and starting [his] own business.” At that point, he knew he had all the know-how on tortilla sales and driving routes and had made “great relationships” with people in the industry.

He asserts that months before starting the company, he began telling friends in the tortilla industry he was planning on leaving his job and creating his own brand. He asked them to support him — and they did.

Tortilleria Chinantla started out with four employees who feel “full of pride” today

Used with permission from Tortilleria Chinantla

Once he ventured alone, he remembers asking his peers to join his company. They didn’t exactly trust that he could pay their usual salary — but four people eventually started out with him.

“The initial sacrifices were a vehicle to start distributing [tortillas]…” he explains. “[Such as] convincing my peers to work for me, even though they doubted I could pay them their same salary. Because we made practically the same amount, they decided to come with me, and four of us started out working in the company.”

Now, they feel “full of pride” at what they accomplished. Plus, as the businessman shares, all their struggles gave them more of a desire to bring their tortilla company to the top.

“All the adversity we had to overcome only strengthened our desire to become what Tortilleria Chinantla is today,” he says.

Building an empire that landed him the name “El rey de la tortilla”

Ponce has sat firmly on the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship for three decades, and he isn’t stopping anytime soon. The company eventually began manufacturing more than a million tortillas daily, but now, it might even be more.

As per the founder, the company doesn’t individually count tortillas anymore, instead they weigh their output in tons. Why? They are producing more products, including: tortillas taqueras, tortillas gorditas, tortillas familiar, tortillas regular, tostadas and tortilla chips. Yum.

Used with permission from Tortilleria Chinantla

Overcoming unexpected tragedies

Not everything has always been peachy, though. Back in 2011, a worker died at the factory after a mixing machine accident. Ponce was fined nearly $450,000 and sentenced to jail for workers’ compensation violations.

While the tragedy is still a deep stain on the founder’s legacy, his daughter Jocelyn Ponce discussed the event with Bushwick Daily in 2016.

“It was an accident…And we’ve always treated everyone here with respect,” she said. “It’s a family business and we treat our employees as family. But we had to face what we had to face and we took care of everything we had to take care of.”

The family declined to comment on the incident for this interview.

Today, Tortilleria Chinantla employs 45 people and is still operated by Ponce and his family.

For Ponce, it’s not the “American dream” but the “Mexican dream”

Used with permission from Tortilleria Chinantla

Slightly different from the “American dream,” Ponce told mitú that he feels like he achieved the “Mexican dream.”

“Immigrants have personal dreams,” he says. “And my dream came true as someone who is Mexican.”

The founder also shared his advice for immigrants searching for opportunities and a better life in the U.S.:

“My advice is: constant work, perseverance, not giving up on your goals, and overcoming all obstacles that present themselves”

Ponce hopes his story can help young entrepreneurs since he “started out with practically nothing.” He says his hard work and perseverance brought him to a “place of privilege” today.