Business Link’s monthly Client Feature allows us to highlight some of the many incredible Alberta entrepreneurs we work with, like Manuel Puentes and his business The Canadian Tortilla Co. We connected with Manuel and asked him a few questions about his entrepreneurial journey, and the impact that COVID-19 has had on his plans to launch his business in Calgary.
Q. What is your background?
A. I was born in México, landed in Canada in 1983 and am now a proud Canadian citizen. I attended law school at the Anahuac University in Mexico City and worked at the Mexican Consulate in Toronto in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I have worked as a senior business developer and entrepreneur for most of my professional life. I am the proud father of two adult sons, Manuel Jr. and Adrian.
Q. Tell us about your business and what it does.
A. I am setting up a tortilla factory in Calgary that will manufacture and distribute locally-made, high quality corn masa for tamales and pupusas, fresh tortillas, and tortilla chips. I was to start operations this summer but the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to modify my business plan and timing.
Q. What motivated you to start your own business?
A. I tried to participate in several festivals in Calgary during the summer of 2019 offering Mexican tacos, and while searching for supplies I realized that most tortillas in Canada are imported from the US and the ones that are locally made couldn’t fulfill my needs or were too expensive for food service.
Mexican food, tacos and all related dishes have evolved in the local palate to include more than hard shell tacos or simple burritos. Millions of Canadian have visited Mexico in the last 2 decades and their taste has evolved to accept and expect true Mexican food fare. I searched for equipment and new technologies and I will be proud to offer freshly made corn tortillas instead of refrigerated or shelf stable shells.
Q. What are you most proud of? What is your biggest success?
A. I have secured a new technology for the nixtamalization of corn that reduces the time of the nixtamalization process from 12 hours to 2, and will produce a top-quality masa as the base of all our products. We will be the only Canadian company with this technology.
Q. What is your biggest challenge now, in light of COVID-19?
A. My original plan was to provide direct distribution to restaurants and food establishments in Calgary and Edmonton, but COVID-19 has hit the restaurant industry very hard, which has forced me to redefine my start-up and business plan.
Q. Have you had to pivot your business due to the impact of COVID-19? If so, what have you done?
A. These are strange times, forcing all of us to pivot our businesses to survive. I had to delay my retail service operation to the fall of 2020, and expand my product list to include Latin food supplies with a longer shelf life that are needed by restaurants and can also be sold to the general public through Latin markets.
I have included a taco development consultancy to support local non-Mexican restaurants to include dishes using masa, fresh tortillas and tortilla chips in their menus using our database of more than 700 Mexican recipes. I also worked with some local Mexican restaurants to explore using their seating areas as retail spaces to expand their potential income.
Q. What has this pandemic taught you about you and/or your business?
A. Personally, not to take for granted social interactions, the intimate and fragile spirit of a hug or a hand shake and how fragile we all are in this world.
Business wise, I have learned that we are far more adaptable to new challenges than we all thought we were, and that Albertans have a huge heart for supporting their local businesses as much as they can. We have to focus on giving great customer service and build client loyalty. Business is about your customers buying in to your dream while exceeding their expectations of service and value.
Q. What advice would you offer other small business owners as they continue to navigate the impacts of COVID-19 on their business?
A. To accept these challenges as part of an overhaul of life and business. To be prepared for war economics at all times. To consider that high quality service will always rank very high in any business, and to never, never, never take their clients for granted.
Q. How has Business Link helped you? Why did you come to us?
A. Business Link has provided me with very straight answers to my questions, and has assisted me in clarifying any doubts. Mark Shields has listened when I needed a professional ear, guided me through my start up needs and introduced me to key players and stakeholders for my business.
When meeting with Ryan Swotis from Royal Bank, he touted Business Link as a great source of information and support and I was not disappointed.
Q. Have you received support from other organizations? If so, which organizations?
A. RBC Commercial Banking has been a definite support in my venture, as well as MNP and Momentum. Alberta Agriculture, Canada Brand, Agriculture Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the City of Calgary have all been of great support also.
Special thanks are also due to Roy Aguirre from the Mexican Consulate in Calgary.
Q. What advice would you share with others who want to start or grow their own business?
A. Produce, observe and treat your business plan as a living document. My mom used to tell me “measure twice and cut once”. Hold to your dream and find expert advice, research, investigate, communicate with professionals, value what Business Link experts have to say and don’t let circumstances affect your reality of being an entrepreneur. If life gives you lemons, make a margarita and enjoy!
Q. What’s coming up next for you?
A. I am searching for the All Canadian Tortilla and will continue to work on developing locally grown corn for human consumption. Meanwhile, hard work and success! You have to be very optimistic and a bit crazy to take the risk of letting your entrepreneurial spirit take over.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to share?
A. I want to acknowledge the resilient character of Calgarians and Albertans in general that have proven, once more, as in the past, that their spirit is unbreakable, that we will always rise to any challenge. We will not only prevail but in the words of Shane Koyczan, WE ARE MORE. Good luck and keep safe everyone, and try a freshly made tortilla when you have a chance.