How Yoli Tortilleria combines heritage and innovation


KANSAS CITY, MO — Retail bakeries come in all shapes and sizes, and Kansas City, MO-based Yoli Tortilleria is making its mark on the community and reinventing the assumptions of a traditional bakery with its Sonoran-style tortillas.

Before Yoli became the talk of the town and baking community — it was recently named an Outstanding Bakery finalist for the James Beard Awards — tortilla making was a way for co-founder Marissa Gencarelli to destress and find a taste of home.

In 2017, Gencarelli was working at Cerner, a healthcare technology company in Kansas City, and used cooking as a form of therapy. In transcribing a hand-written recipe book an aunt gave her on a visit to Gencarelli’s family in Ciudad Obregon in Sonora, Mexico, the one recipe she lacked was for a quality corn nixtamal tortilla.

“I was making things that you typically see a lot of housewives do, but you really need high quality tortillas,” she said.

Thus began Gencarelli’s search for the right recipe and equipment.

Finding the right mix

“You start realizing that in order to get the right grind, you need a real mill,” she said. “We would buy all kinds and different sizes and always ended up with something that was just not right.”

After searching through several options of home-baking equipment, the Gencarellis used their business acumen to invest in a commercial-grade mill.

“We ended up in LA touring a lot of different facilities, and we decided not only to get our milling equipment, but we went ahead and got all of the equipment needed to make tortillas,” she shared.

After investing in equipment such as Campbell tortilla ovens for Yoli’s original facility in Kansas City’s East Bottoms, the Gencarellis practiced batch after batch to fine tune their scaled recipe. The trip resulted in Yoli’s current production process, a mix of manual labor and automation.

“It really took us like a good three months of constant practice, figuring out the best methods and documenting all of the processes,” Gencarelli said.

In the trial-and-error stage, the avocado oil variety proved to be most challenging due to how the product absorbed the flour. Using local flour, the Yoli team experimented with how each type of flour absorbed water, a factor that impacts the product’s composition.

“Usually, I’ll do that at night at home first, and then if we feel like we’re confident and on the right track, then we’ll go into the manufacturing facility and finish everything up there,” Gencarelli explained. “That’s a lot of what we do because for us, we’re never done, we always have to do better.”

The magic and rich history of Sonoran tortillas

With a mixed cultural history originating from the Yaqui tribe and later mixed with wheat brought to the region by European colonizers, Sonoran tortillas stand out not just as the original flour tortilla but for their distinct ingredient list and production technique.

The corn variant requires nixtamalization, an ancient process that requires cooking corn kernels with food grade lime and water before being ground by volcanic stones to achieve the desired consistency.

Compared to other tortillas found throughout Mexico that include baking powder, the leavening in Sonoran flour tortillas stems from the mix of flour, fat, sea salt and water. In fact, Gencarelli and her husband returned to her hometown in Sonora for two weeks in 2019 to study different tortilla making techniques.

With a variety of fats to work with derived from sources such as pork, beef and avocado, the end result is magical, according to Gencarelli.

“You put it against the light, and you can actually see your hand through it,” she described. “It’s kind of stretchy and a little chewy. And when you finally break it, you can actually see croissant-style break points, which you don’t see in a normal tortilla.”

On the rise

With the right equipment and recipe in hand, Gencarelli and her husband set a plan to make the tortillas on weeknights after work and sell them straight to restaurants in 2017.

The plan lasted a week.

“Within the week that we had launched, we had a chef come into our shop, and he was just in love with the product,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Can you do this seven days a week?’ The volume was so great that one of us could quit [our job].”

After that encounter, Yoli’s first six months in business were all restaurant focused as word of the brand’s products spread from chef to chef. The following year, Yoli expanded regionally and began selling tortillas in the Overland Park Farmers’ Market.

As a next step, Yoli opened its retail location just a few miles away in the Westside neighborhood mid-pandemic in August 2020.

Today, the tortilleria operates out of both facilities, with the retail store front dedicated to flour tortillas and a 10,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility now focused solely on corn tortilla production. Their ovens put out about 3,000 corn tortillas per hour.

From home baker to James Beard finalist

When Gencarelli began making Sonoran tortillas in her home just a few years ago, she could never have imagined a pandemic passion becoming a booming business with recognition as a James Beard Award finalist for Outstanding Bakery (the Gencarellis had previously been shortlisted for the Outstanding Baker category in 2022).

“It’s incredibly meaningful as a Mexican that the tortilla is being recognized at the same level as bread,” she said of the significance of the nomination. “For me, bread is a colonized food, so the tortilla really represents indigenous people, the Mesoamerican survival against colonialism. And then the flour tortilla is how we adapted from being conquered. So, for me, it’s just incredibly meaningful and an honor that something like this would even be recognized.”

Word of Yoli’s nomination spread quickly and calls soon came in from Europe, Mexico, South America and beyond.

“We got a call from a Mexican person living in Dubai,” Gencarelli recalled. “They had heard about it and wanted to talk to me about it, and that’s when it really sank in how meaningful this is for Mexicans. I almost got choked up and teary eyed because it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is more than just us, this is representation in this country.’”

An authentic taste of the future

With business booming, Yoli forges on. Currently, the brand is waiting for additional equipment to arrive in order to expand its production capabilities.

“We’ve had to say no to a lot of opportunities right now just because we’re tapped out,” she said. “It’s incredible. People get really excited about a new product. For us, it’s proof that we’re on the right track.”

Though Yoli boasts both corn and flour tortillas as part of its product portfolio, the tortilleria is growing beyond the traditional offerings. Gencarelli shared that she’s experimenting with the biggest staples of Mexican breads such as conchas, mantecadas, cochitos and elotes to continue plans to expand Yoli’s retail offerings.

“We’re just going one day at a time,” she said. “We are really founded in constant innovation and movement.”

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