Inside Chinantla, North Brooklyn's Other Tortilleria
The vast East Williamsburg operation produces a staggering number of tortillas daily—and it has a dark chapter in its history.
Sure, you’ve heard of Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, but did you know they’re not the area's only tortilla factory?
Just one mile away from the beloved Starr Street eatery, on Grand Street near Morgan Avenue, you’ll find Tortilleria Chinantla.
This large building, covered in a beautiful cornfield mural, does not include a restaurant like Los Hermanos. They’re too busy making tortillas, both corn and flour, and corn chips too!
Chinantla distributes tortillas to 11 states, the factory's website says the enterprise produces over one million tortillas every day. For Chinantla, making tortillas is big business: the factory grosses $4 million dollars annually.
Erasmo Ponce Felipe, who started the business in 1992 with refurbished equipment and just four friends, still oversees the operation 24 years later. It truly is a story of the American dream and a bootstrapping immigrant growing a successful business—though there's a dark chapter in the business' history as well.
According to the New York Times, one of Chinantla’s employees died in a machinery accident at the factory in 2011.
22-year-old Juan Baten was caught in the dough-mixing machine, sucked in, and crushed under the machine’s churning mechanism. There was nothing anyone could do to save him, and he died on the scene.
“It was an accident,” says Jocelyn Ponce, Erasmo Ponce Felipe’s daughter who manages the factory. “And we've always treated everyone here with respect. 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. Thank you for taking the opportunity to speak with us because there are some people who hear that and just think that we're down right horrible. Our doors are open to anyone.”
After investigating, state officials shut down the factory having discovered that Chinantla Tortilleria had been operating without workers’ compensation insurance for many months.
Not long after that, Chinantla’s owner and founder Felipe was arrested on charges of underpaying employees, falsifying business records and violating workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance laws.
Facing 26 felony counts and 23 misdemeanor counts, Felipe was sentenced to 90 days jail time at Rikers Island (which he served on weekends) and restitution payments totaling $450,000.
These days, Chinantla touts its modern production system, which feature "fully computerized security controls," and notes that the organization has won awards for its contributions to its community—and samaritan cred aside, the factory's red, green and white logo, which is flanked by yellow corn, is instantly recognizable to patrons of area supermarkets.
Did any of this impact their business? “Somewhat in a minor way,” Jocelyn Ponce says. “But most people stood behind us and we really appreciate that. These are people who my father worked with for over 20 years and they supported us, they didn't shun us, and we were grateful for that."
Remember Chinantla next time Los Hermanos comes up—we live in a tortilleria-rich neighborhood! Stop by for a package of fresh tortillas!
Featured image: The Chinantla mural. Photo courtesy of Tortilleria Chinantla.