SAN JOSE, Calif. Move over, white bread. Make way for the bread of the future: the tortilla.
At its current rate of growth, the tortilla will surpass white bread as the top-selling bread in the United States by the end of this decade. The torrid growth of tortilla sales marks a dramatic shift in U.S. culture and culinary tastes.
"It's so universal to use," said Manny Berber, president of Mi Rancho, a tortilla company in San Leandro, Calif., with 150 employees. "There are more choices when you use a tortilla."
Mi Rancho, which sells to restaurants both in the San Francisco Bay area and nationally, has found overall tortilla sales to be robust despite the slowdown in the Bay area economy. Sales are doing well for tortillas marketed by private-label companies as well as specialty flavors ranging from chili tomato to spinach, he said.
Nationally, tortilla sales have grown steadily by just under 10 percent a year and are expected to hit $6.1 billion next year, according to the Tortilla Industry Association.
That may sound slow by tech standards, but it has doubled the size of the industry since 1996. According to the association, tortillas have 32 percent of the market for all types of bread, compared with 34 percent for white bread.
And the tortilla market is heating up fast. While supermarket sales of white bread dropped 0.6 percent in 2002 from the year before, tortilla sales grew 11 percent, according to market research company IRI. Private-label tortilla sales jumped a whopping 26 percent.
Tortilla sales are catching on even on the East Coast, according to the Dallas-based association. Sales have been strongest in the Southwest and far West.
George Robles is president of La Colonial in San Jose, one of a dozen medium-size tortilla baking companies in the Bay area. A second-generation tortilla maker, he has bought automated equipment to keep his company turning out flour tortillas for 30 different sellers.
"Our sales have been steady," he said.
The traditional corn tortilla is the basic bread of Mexico. But the flour tortilla became widely used when "wrap" sandwiches caught on as a new fast food, and they now sell slightly more than the corn tortilla.
The plain white flour tortilla has turned into a rainbow of colors: the reddish sun-dried tomato, the green spinach-flavored tortilla, even a dark-brown chocolate tortilla.
"I don't know what they use them for, but people love them," Leo Jimenez, 73, said of the chocolate tortillas made by his Fort Worth company, Leo's Foods. "We try to give customers what they want within reason."
A few large national manufacturers such as Mission, a subsidiary of Gruma based in Mexico, and Bimbo Bakeries, also a subsidiary of a Mexican company dominate the sales to the large supermarkets. At the same time, a dozen small- to medium-size local companies fight to compete by selling to distributors for their own label or restaurants.
The competitive squeeze broke out into a lawsuit when 18 smaller companies including eight in California sued Gruma and Bimbo. The small companies claim the giants have used unfair tactics and violate antitrust laws to dominate retail sales. A ruling is expected soon.
Meanwhile, some Bay area tortilla makers have avoided the fiercely competitive retail shelves and developed niche products.
La Tortilla Factory in Santa Rosa sells low-carbohydrate tortillas to take advantage of the popularity of the Atkins diet. The company developed the product almost a decade ago, but it is only now beginning to sell well, said Jenny Tamayo, marketing manager.
To reduce the carbohydrates, the tortilla is prepared with oat fiber along with soy flour and whole wheat flour. The fiber reduces the amount of carbohydrate absorbed to only 3 grams far less than the traditional 25 to 40 grams in most tortillas, she said.
Last month, her company, founded by her grandparents in 1977, launched a new organic tortilla to sell to niche markets and is experimenting with different flavors using various vegetables.
"A lot of people are using it as a bread replacement," Tamayo said.