Meet Our Family - Page Heading
Today, the story of La Perla wouldn’t even get started. Even in the 1970’s when it did, it was still a million to one shot. But today, never. You see La Perla started when Jose Payan left Morelos, Mexico and crossed the border illegally to find work. He was just 14 years old. If you’re at all familiar with Mexico, you may understand that he didn’t just cross the border, he hiked nearly all of Mexico just to get to the border. Then he crossed it. From there, Jose made his way to Houston, Texas through the kindness and charity of a Greyhound Bus driver. In Houston, he came upon a Chicago businessman recruiting laborers for home siding crews in the Chicago area. It was work, so Jose jumped at the opportunity. Plus he had family in the Chicago area.
After 3 years working siding crews and three frigid Chicago winters Jose was up for a little relief from the elements and jumped at the idea of working inside at a Chicago restaurant. However that career was cut short when an uncle called from Kennet Square, Pennsylvania offering work on a mushroom farm. The job came with a free place to live along with utilities, low pay and long hours. Just what Jose was looking for. In Kennet Square mushrooms are life. This little corner of the world produces a million pounds of mushrooms a week and when you’re a mushroom picker, you’re busy 18 hours a day. On Thursday the farm owner drove everyone into town to do laundry. On Sundays they went in for groceries. Otherwise you were picking mushrooms with rare exceptions. One of those was a Saturday that Jose drove a fellow worker to New Jersey to see his girlfriend. On that trip, Jose met Noemi and fell in love. It wasn’t long before Jose moved to New Jersey to be closer to Noemi and found work on a blueberry farm.
Jose and Noemi were soon married and in 1983 they moved back to Chicago to be close to family as the couple started raising their own. By 1990 the Payans had become a family of 5 and while visiting sisters in Minnesota came to the conclusion that Minneapolis was a much safer place to raise their family. By 1992 they moved to Minnesota and Jose found work at the upscale catering and restaurant company - D’amico and Sons.
However, like many immigrants, Jose and Noemi dreamed of owning a business of their own someday. It was a big dream obviously, for a young couple with 5 kids and another on the way. But obviously, Jose and Noemi never shied away from making bold moves. The only question was, what kind of business would it be? Then one day, it dawned on Jose that there was no such thing as a fresh tortilla in the north. Where Jose came from, a meal wasn’t a meal without a tortilla, and they were always fresh. In fact, fresh tortilla’s were a family passion. Back in Morelos, Jose’s uncle provided him a job at his tortilla factory when possible and Jose’s mother had even tried to start her own tortilla factory. It was suddenly so obvious, fresh tortillas would be their business.
Starting with a business plan they put together with the help of John Flory from the Whittier CDC they embarked on a journey that would take three and a half years and include city government, economic development commissions, banks, a major construction company and their home as collateral. But in the end, when all the construction dust had settled, they had played a major role in saving and restoring a condemned building that is now home to the Mercado on Lake Street and houses 9 small family owned businesses.
Jose and Noemi’s La Perla Tortilleria in the Mercado was conceived to be an authentic Mexican style cantina offering fresh corn tortillas with every dish and a small retail space offering homemade tortillas, tostadas and tortilla chips. It wasn’t long before it seemed everyone wanted fresh tortillas. Their little oven was going 24/7 and still not even coming close to keeping up with the demand for their tortillas and chips.
By 2002, Jose and Noemi knew they had to seize the opportunity that had come to them or regret it forever. So back to the bank they went. This time for a loan nearly six times larger than the first to start a “real” tortilla factory in St. Paul’s east side. Nearly a quarter of their capital went to bringing the 5,000 square foot building up to code, the rest went to ovens, fryers, conveyor belts, raw materials, trucks and payroll. They were now deep in debt once again, but the Payans now owned a real tortilla factory and were busy making the freshest, most authentic hand made tortillas in the region. Soon they was supplying grocery stores and restaurants while maintaining a small retail presence of their own. However, the writing was on the wall, they were outgrowing this location from the first day the turned on the tortilla oven. By 2004 the Payans were in the market for a larger, more functional factory. Having overworked their St. Paul factory, now they knew exactly what they needed to keep up with demand.
It took nearly 2 years and 8 different loans to put together the financing to buy the current La Perla location. But at last, in 2006 the Payans opened their new 50,000 square for Tortilla Factory in Minneapolis. Finally the family had the space to grow their business rather than just keep up with it. They had office space, retail space and of course, production and inventory space. Nearly 30 years after leaving Morelos, Mexico, Jose had come full circle to working in a tortilla factory again. Only now, it was his factory and it was his family at his side. After all these years, Jose had realized his mothers dream.
Today, the La Perla Tortilla Factory is the epitome of a family business. Five of the six Payan children work full time in the business. Aunts and uncles work the line. Cousins find work as needed and extended family is everywhere. Jose and Noemi are actively involved in the business on a daily basis. Jose Jr. and Manny run the factory, oversee marketing and fix everything that needs fixin’. Miguel manages the Tortilleria at the Mercado on Lake Street where La Perla first came to life. And daughter Cynthia keeps the books along side Noemi.
Harkening back its humble beginnings in the Mercado on Lake Street, La Perla still offers fresh tortillas and chips, fresh from the factory for sale — at the exact same price you’ll find in your local grocery store.