Stepping through the front door of Jesse’s Tortilla Factory, 13th Street and Webster Avenue, is like coming face to face with a blast furnace.
It is, after all, a factory where heat turns corn into tortillas, chips and taco shells. But proprietor Santos Rodriguez Jr., grandson of the founder, has added a touch of retail to his largely wholesale operation. He now is serving meals on Fridays and $1 tacos on Saturdays and has ambitious plans to add outdoor seating and possibly convert nearby rent homes to dining areas.
Warming to the subject, Rodriguez said Friday the 60-year-old tortilleria supplies product to 35 restaurants, “with La Fiesta being our largest.” He also mentioned other Tex-Mex establishments, including El Conquistador and Leal’s, as well as Poppa Rollo’s, a pizzeria that also serves nachos.
About two months ago, Rodriguez heeded the advice of a relative and began serving meals on Fridays from a limited menu. Entrees include a crispy taco plate and a taquito plate, each priced at $7.75, and a tamale plate priced at $8.95. They come with rice, beans, chips, hot sauce and a drink.
Individual tacos and chalupas are priced at $1.60.
Saturday is $1 taco day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., or until they’re gone.
Standing at a counter surrounded by packages of corn tortillas and salsa chips, Rodriguez said with a smile he noticed his restaurant clients were doing well for themselves. They live in nice homes. Some have ranches.
He said he does not begrudge restaurateurs their success. God likewise has been good to him, and blessed his business. A message across the Jesse’s entryway speaks to his world view: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
But Rodriguez could not resist adding a dash of retail to his wholesale-heavy niche. He said he continues to work out kinks while planning for the future of Jesse’s should the experiment prove successful. He knows he needs more on-site seating. He has a single table and a few chairs on the sidewalk outside, but the summer heat makes dining there a challenge. Welcoming visitors to dine inside would be out of the question. It’s cramped and hot.
So for now Rodriguez relies heavily upon orders to go.
A rendering accessible on his smartphone allows Rodriguez to dream. It shows a Jesse’s Tortilla Factory sporting a reworked facade and with a vacant lot to the east dotted by umbrella-covered dining areas.
“We have two rental properties behind us,” said Rodriguez. “I plan to do some checking on what could be done with those should the need arise.”
Jesse’s Tortilla Factory operates only six blocks from the most popular tourist attraction in Central Texas, Magnolia Market at the Silos, which brings more than 30,000 people to downtown every week, according to estimates by the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau. Other developments, taking their cue from Magnolia’s success, continue to arise in the neighborhood.
Rodriguez said Magnolia Market did not play a part in his decision.
Jesse’s Tortilla Factory was founded by the late Jesse Contreras in October 1958, and its operation remains the responsibility of descendants.Esther Contreras told the Tribune-Herald in 2008 the tortilla factory was a dream of her husband’s after he came home from U.S. Army service in 1950. Before they even married, he was working for her mother, Herma Linda Nino, in her tortilleria on Second Street at Webster Avenue. After his apprenticeship, Jesse and Esther Contreras went into business for themselves.
“When we started out, we had one roller machine,” Contreras said then. “We had a little corner store, too, selling bread and sodas and meat. We had canned fruits and vegetables, candy and cigarettes in the front part.”
Now as then, corn is the key to Jesse’s Tortilla Factory, which also proudly owns a silo. The grain pours from it into large metal basins to be washed and cooked and converted to hominy. After another rinsing, it moves in bins to the stone-grinder, which mashes the soggy kernels into maza, or dough.
The dough goes through an extruder, flattening it for a cutting machine, which drops perfectly formed tortillas onto a conveyor belt that carries them through the oven. Later the finished tortilla is either packed in plastic or stacked for deep-frying to become chips or taco shells, the Tribune-Herald was told.
Rodriguez, a grandson of the founder, said Jesse’s does not make flour tortillas but secures them from a supplier for resale