Family struggles to keep tortilla business afloat after accusation
November 21, 2009
Steamboat Springs — When Integrated Community Executive Director Tatiana Achcar tasted the food that Gonzolo and Luz Mendoza were selling, she knew they were on to something good.
"I told them, 'You have a gold mine on your hands. Explore it,'" she said.
The fresh tortillas, sweet breads and tamales the Mendozas bought in Denver and resold in Steamboat Springs starting two months ago were an immediate success.
By using the recommendations of family members and friends in the Denver area, the local couple found the kinds of tortillas they would buy for their own families, and soon the Mendozas had a door-to-door business.
Gonzolo Mendoza, a founding board member with Integrated Community and a local auto mechanic, said the extra business was a small boost to the family and part of a larger plan by Luz to open a store.
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Opening the small operation was more difficult than the modest red pickup that houses it would indicate.
Luz Mendoza said she initially wanted to bake her own tortillas to sell in Steamboat, but the health department regulations and required permits made it difficult, so she opted to distribute pre-made goods instead.
Still, she had to go through the permitting process, and the Mendozas became the only permitted tortilla sellers in town.
The Mendozas were distributing about 250 packages of tortillas a day until an accusation nearly brought down the business.
On Oct. 21, Luz Mendoza's cousin was accused of assaulting a woman as he tried to sell tortillas at her house. The accusation, bolstered by rumors spread around town that conflated the event with a reported rape the night before, took a chunk out of sales.
Tortilla sales plummeted, and Luz Mendoza was left with bread she couldn't sell. She said she was worried the business would fold entirely and that she would lose the money and time she spent on the permits and equipment.
Luz Mendoza was standing outside the house when the reported assault happened, and she said she couldn't believe the accusation was made.
Steamboat Springs police investigated the report, on River Road, and found there was not enough evidence to press charges.
"They were upset and concerned that the publicity that came up around this case very negatively impacted their business," Detective Dave Kleiber said.
The reported assault took on a life of its own, Kleiber said, becoming a "Frankenstein mentality where they're trying to find this monster."
The truth, he said, is that the Mendoza family has followed all the rules.
"He's (made) a legitimate business. They possess all the proper business licenses, tax licenses, health department, everything," he said. "There's no reason for us to believe that there is any threat from anybody associated with this business to anybody in the community."
He said there were no previous complaints about the business.
Capt. Joel Rae agreed and said no charges were filed based on the accusation because there was not a consistent story about what happened.
Achcar said the Mendozas often provide food for Integrated Community events, and more than that, she turns to Gonzolo Mendoza for good advice.
"We count on Gonzolo to keep a finger on the pulse, to tell us if we're doing our work right and also if our programs are meeting the needs of the community," she said.
Gonzolo Mendoza has been a board member since the group's inception nearly five years ago, she said.
Tom Lichtenfels greeted Luz Mendoza's cousin, Arturo Velazquez, by name as he pulled up to his Old Town home to find the sellers stopping by his house.
Lichtenfels said he buys tortillas every two weeks and the tamales every chance he gets.
It's regular customers like the Lichtenfels that have kept the small company afloat, Luz Mendoza said. Since the assault allegation, sales have slowly started to return — they picked up 150 packages of tortillas from Denver last week — but she's not back to her peak sales yet. She said she also has heard rumors of "fake" tortilla sellers around town who pose a threat and may be stopping people from opening their doors. Her husband said he has heard similar stories and would report any other sellers to the police, but so far they haven't seen anybody else on the streets. Police said they haven't had reports of another group, either.
Luz Mendoza sells across Steamboat and Steamboat II in the morning and afternoon as she balances her work schedule with her three children. The Mendozas even bought a red and silver Nissan pickup with a camper to use for the company, and Gonzolo Mendoza said he's considering buying a "delivery driver" type logo or light for the truck to identify the business.
Luz Mendoza has even bigger plans. She said the door-to-door selling is a way to "open up the market" and start creating a customer base for El Sol, a Mexican grocery store she'd like to start on Steamboat's west side. Gonzolo Mendoza said he has started to look at properties where his wife can run the shop, stocked with candies and Mexican food not available anywhere else in Routt County.
"We're trying to make a good living here," Gonzolo Mendoza said. "Trying to make it a little bit better."