SPENCE KIMBALL

The Associated Press

McALLEN, Texas (AP) - Cristina Ardila built her business the same way she makes tortillas: from scratch.

Ardila moved her two daughters from Monterrey to McAllen after marrying an American advertising agent in 1990. Her daughter Sofia Erosa, who was eight at the time, recalls crying as the family drove across the Rio Grande River to their new home in America.

"I didn't want to lose my Mexican food," she said.

Ardila had no intention of abandoningher culinary heritage. But she could not find fresh flour tortillas to make authentic Mexican food in the United States.

So Ardila started making them from scratch instead of buying the preservative-filled tortillas that lined grocery store shelves. Her homemade tortillas were so good that friends started asking for them.

She realized there was a demand for her product and decided to open a business called La Abuela Mexican Foods Inc. in 1994. The company is currently located on 1904 Joe Stephens Drive in Weslaco.

"It became too much work and we were giving (tortillas) away," Ardila said.

Emmett Wells, Ardila's husband, helped find the company's first customers. They began with independent Mexican grocery stores on South 23rd St. in McAllen. The first major carrier was a now defunct chain store called Carl's.

La Abuela was a humble operation when it first opened. Ardila cooled the tortillas in a $90 refrigerator and delivered them in a used suburban. Wells printed labels off his computer and pasted them on the plastic bags they used to package the product.

Ardila woke up early every morning and loaded Styrofoam ice chests filled with raw tortillas into the back of her suburban. She made the deliveries by herself.

But the days of face-to-face deliveries to small grocery stores would not last long. Ardila wanted to expand the business to larger chain stores.

So she and Wells went to San Antonio, where they pitched her tortillas to H.E.B. They were given the green light to solicit individual stores to carry Ardila's product.

Every H.E.B across South Texas began to carry the tortillas even though they cost 41 cents more than the cooked competition.

"They were very successful because people smelled the product," Ardila said. "They smelled different than those produced with chemicals."

So successful that she decided to expand her business beyond Texas.

Ardila and Wells approached Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark., with her product. Wal-Mart representatives were skeptical because they already had several brands of tortillas on their store shelves. But they decided to offer Ardila a contract after a taste test.

La Abuela Mexican Foods started at four Wal-Mart distribution centers in Texas. The tortilla company is now in 14 distribution centers across the country.

Ardila's tortillas are carried in 1,800 stores in nineteen states. And she expects that number to grow to 3,500 in the next two years.

"The market is still growing for Mexican food," Ardila said.

The demand is growing as fast as the country's Hispanic population. La Abuela once claimed to be the only raw tortilla company. But several competitors have opened up shop to take advantage of the nation's growing taste for Mexican food.

Wells believes Ardila's product is still unique. He equated her tortillas to apple pie.

"She's not just selling a good product," Wells said. "Whenever you smell this being cooked, it reminds you of going to your grandmother's house."