Desire to Add Value Leads Family to Tortilla Chip Business
By Charity Horinek
Visit a Mexican restaurant in Southwest Kansas, and you will most likely eat tortilla chips that were grown and produced nearby, thanks to the Winfrey family of Plains.
Since 2001, Leon and Nancy Winfrey and son Dustin Winfrey have operated Southwest Tortillas, utilizing their own crops to manufacture fresh corn tortillas they sell to restaurants, where they are fried and served to customers in the form of chips and salsa. The company also produces bagged tortilla chips under the brand name Pedro’s Corn Chips, which are distributed to and sold through small grocers in the region.
“It started as a way of marketing my corn,” Leon Winfrey said. “We needed to find a way to add value to our corn. So I decided to sell it through a bag. I’m not selling corn chips; I’m selling my corn in a bag instead of an elevator.”
The family started small, researching and finding the perfect variety of food-grade white corn that grows well in Southwest Kansas and produces a top-quality end product. They started out hauling their corn to Dallas and Oklahoma City for tortilla production, where they learned that Southwest Kansas turns out to be an excellent climate for corn production.
“Our heat unit and our climate raises the best quality corn in the nation,” Winfrey said. “I had thought the Corn Belt must be where the best corn was raised, but the factories in Dallas told us this is the best corn they had ever seen. It turns out that Southwest Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and the Texas Panhandle produce the best kernel of corn due to altitude, heat units, and climate. Our test weight is usually in the 62 to 64 pounds per bushel range, and the average in the Corn Belt is around 56 to 58 pounds max.”
Winfrey soon learned he could add even more value to his product by cooking and producing the tortillas himself rather than trucking his corn to factories in Dallas. “This opened our eyes to how much food is raised in this country and how much food is consumed,” Winfrey said. “When we were hauling to Dallas or Oklahoma City, we could only take a semi load a day. It was a fraction of what they were processing. I gained a real understanding of how much corn is used, and it’s unbelievable.”
Southwest Tortillas is located in a blue metal building on the edge of Plains, where they cook 1,000 pounds of corn every day and have six employees (including the Winfreys). They built their clientele one customer at a time through old-fashioned door-to-door sales.
“My wife, son and me started knocking on doors. As we’d see a new restaurant pop up, we’d stop in and ask them to taste our product, to serve it to their customers and see what they thought,” he said. “We’d do the same with small grocery stores in the area. After awhile, consumers started asking for our chips, and they almost market themselves now.”
The biggest challenge in a business like this, he said, was in learning what the consumer wants and how to get his product in their hands.“They want a bigger bag. They want to see the chips inside, that they aren’t all broken,” Winfrey said. Pedro’s comes in a distinctive clear bag with yellow and red design. “Then I had to learn about how products are placed in a grocery store, and learned how people shop. We are creatures of habit. We don’t shop for groceries. You go shoe shopping or clothes shopping, but you go grocery buying. When you’re shopping for clothes, you try on things, you roam the aisles looking to see what they have. When you are buying groceries, you know exactly where things are. So I have to catch your eye as you scan through the aisles. And then when I have your eye, I have to get your attention. My bag needs to have something on it that makes you pick it up.”
Other consumer behavior, such as the habit of turning right in stores, reaching out to grasp things on the right, and buying the same products repeatedly, also factor in when Winfrey is marketing his product to a grocery store and getting it on the shelves. The company did sell its product online at one time, but doesn’t have a website anymore, finding shipping costs prohibitive.
“The freight went out the roof. We’d be shipping $12 worth of chips and it would cost $16 to ship them,” Winfrey said. “It wasn’t cost-effective. But we do still have loyal customers who call us and we do ship to them.”
They are also responsive to customers’ needs. When restaurants started asking for salsa to go with the chips, Southwest Tortillas hired a cannery to produce its salsa. “It’s our recipe, and uses all fresh produce,” Winfrey said. “Now the salsa is such a good seller!”
The restaurant business, he estimates, is about 50 to 60 percent of the company’s sales. They sell whole raw tortillas or quarter-cut raw tortillas to about 40 restaurants in Southwest Kansas, South Central Kansas, and Oklahoma, in about a 150-mile radius of Plains.
“We are located right between Liberal, Garden City, and Dodge City, and there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in the area,” he said. “But at the beginning it was a tough sale. They were all using a food service truck for their chips. So even though our price was about the same, I didn’t have a salesman out there pushing our product. We had to visit them and let them try our chips, and their customers liked them. If you have good chips and salsa, people will still there.”
The business has expanded in size over the years and the family hopes to continue that trend. “We have doubled over the last four years, and aim to grow our production at least 20 percent a year,” Winfrey said.
Pedro’s Corn Chips have gained a loyal following in the region, and most small grocers in the area carry them at the request of customers. Any many restaurants have repeat customers who come primarily for the freshly made, never-ending basket of chips and salsa.
The Winfreys’ business goes to show that an enterprising spirit and an eye for quality each step of the way can add value to a small farm’s products.
“I raise a non-GMO, gluten-free, home-raised product,” Winfrey said. “From the time I plant the seeds to the time I put it in the bag, it never leaves my hands.”
Southwest Tortillas can be reached at (620) 563-9181.