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Mark & Marissa Gencarelli: The Art of the Authentic Tortilla

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Receiving the news of well-deserved recognition can be exhilarating, unexpected and, in some circumstances, frightening. But for Mark and Marissa Gencarelli, owners of Yoli Tortilleria, their achievement was jaw-dropping. A few months ago, the Kansas City, Missouri, tortilla maker was notified that it was a semifinalist in the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Bakery category.

The news was so surprising to Mark and Marissa because it is believed to be the first time a tortilla bakery has been named in any category in the highly coveted awards. Yoli Tortilleria has now passed through the semifinalist ranks into the last level of contenders and will be up against bakeries in New Orleans, Louisiana; Richardson, Texas; Dallas, Texas; and Miami, Florida, for the top spot. The announcement is set for early June.

“We are honored and humbled to be a nominee in the Outstanding Bakery category. We were already so happy, but to top it off were the calls, emails and direct messages we received from tortillerias across the world,” Marissa said. “They are so excited for this historical moment where the tortilla is being considered in the same value that bread is.”

Representatives from the James Beard Foundation have combed through the records of those receiving the prestigious recognition in the past and there is no evidence that tortillerias or tortilla makers have ever been nominated in the Outstanding Bakery category. Part of the reason is that the tortilla is not a “flashy” segment of the food scene; it is a thin, circular, unleavened flatbread helping to deliver delicious ingredients to the lucky consumer. It traces its humble beginnings to the indigenous people of Mesoamerica dating back to 500 BCE.

Because Yoli Torilleria’s creations and bakery were chosen as a James Beard finalist. this creates an opportunity for nationwide recognition for the company. Most James Beard categories are ranked by region but the bakery competition is not. Unfortunately, Mark and Marissa can’t thank the person who nominated Yoli Torilleria for the award because they have no idea how their bakery was discovered by the Foundation. Yoli Tortilleria joins a long list of accomplished food culture representatives. The James Beard Foundation was established 30 years ago “to celebrate and support the people behind America’s food culture while pushing for new standards in the restaurant industry to create a future where all have the opportunity to thrive.”

Many years ago, Marissa and Mark noted a “tortilla desert” in Kansas City so they built Yoli Tortilleria to fill that void. For the last five years, Mark and Marissa have poured their hearts, souls and lots of corn and flour into their bakery and shop business. To keep up with demand, they boast two locations: Yoli HQ features the baking of all corn tortillas, tamales and salsas. Yoli Westside is a retail shop where Sonoran-style flour tortillas are produced.

“Yoli takes pride in producing the best quality tortillas while ensuring they are mindful of the land and those who are involved in every step of the process,” Mark said. “Yoli comes from the Aztec word meaning ‘to live’ and embraces the attitude ‘to live adventurously as seekers of quality, hand-crafted foods.’”

Mark and Marissa know that delicious tortillas are created with the best raw materials that can be sourced. They are committed to transparency and traceability in everything they produce. Yoli Tortilleria crafts with only three ingredients: non-GMO corn, lime and water. Compare this to the tortillas that one finds in the grocery, most with no refrigeration. Their ingredient list reads like a book with corn masa flour, water, cellulose gum, propionic acid, benzoic acid, phosphoric acid, guar gum, amylase and more. They are designed to sit on shelves for an extended period.

“Yoli tortillas are made with only non-GMO and organic ingredients. Our label is very clean, with corn tortillas having only corn, water and lime and our flour tortillas flour, pork fat or avocado oil, water and sea salt,” said Mark. “We follow Mesoamerican traditional processes though using the best local ingredients.”

According to Marissa, production processes at Yoli Tortilleria are very special, especially for the Sonoran flour tortillas. “Our corn tortillas follow the ancient Mesoamerican nixtamal process. This means we wash and cook whole corn kernels with lime and water. We let it steep and then grind it with volcanic stones. Then that masa is transformed into tortillas or other masa shapes such as tamales, gorditas, sopes and more,” Marissa said. “Our flour tortillas honor how my hometown makes tortillas. They have a different flour-to-fat ratio than traditional tortillas. They are thin and translucent, though still chewy, and can hold whatever filling you put in them. If you tear them, they are almost like a croissant.”

From the very beginning, this philosophy and commitment to goodness and historical methods of creating delicious foods have driven the business concept at Yoli Tortilleria. But what is so interesting about the deep cultural roots embraced by the business is that they originated with Marissa’s mother. She possessed a deep passion for Mexico but was an American who married a Mexican. Given this colorful foundation, Marissa and Mark will continue to explore and grow their love for Mexican culture and food because “Yoli represents our family’s journey and that ‘stop-at-nothing’ attitude.”

The couple lives in Stilwell, Kansas, along with their children, Santiago and Siena. While Mark hails from Leawood, Kansas, Marissa grew up in Ciudad Obregón, a city in southern Sonora, Mexico. The fertile lands of the area are known for their impressive agricultural economy and the grains they produce.

“Yoli Tortilleria was born out of the desire for me to connect with my family and heritage in the middle of North America. We would visit my friends and family and return with suitcases filled with tortillas and all sorts of treats. We started making our own at home in the style of my hometown,” Marissa recalled. “We later invested in equipment to do as a side gig, though within a week that we had launched we got hired by a Mexican restaurant to provide them tortillas seven days a week. The first six months we focused on working with all the amazing chefs in Kansas City and later introduced it to consumers via the Overland Park Kansas Farmers’ Market.”

While the business speaks volumes about Marissa’s heritage, Mark’s surname brings on visions of Italian foods. But he is an incredible part of the success of Yoli Tortilleria. “I spend much of my time running the operations and ensuring we continue to have a healthy business growth,” Mark shared. “I’m very fortunate to have spent so much time with Marissa’s family in Mexico and I fell in love with their culture.”

Yoli Westside features the flour tortillas and retail shop, at 1668 Jefferson Street, Kansas City. Yoli East Bottoms, 3119 Bell Street, Kansas City, is limited to the manufacturing of corn tortillas. However, the public can purchase Yoli products at some local and national chains such as Whole Foods, Nature’s Own, Local Pig, Market at Meadowbrook, Broadway Butcher, Taco Naco, Urbavore and the Merc Co+op.

The National Restaurant Association estimates a 20 percent success rate for all restaurants. About 60 percent of restaurants fail in their first year of operation, and 80 percent fail within five years of opening. Profit margins are slim, staff turnover can be high. The financial and operational challenges are significant, and a lifetime of savings can be wiped out in less than a year. Mark and Marissa offer this sage advice for all entrepreneurs that can be applied to all small businesses.

“Sometimes you need to go slow to go fast. You need to take the time to think through your values, what is negotiable and what is not,” Marissa advised.
“Take the time to design the brand and the story you are trying to tell,” Mark revealed.

The past few years have been a whirlwind for Mark and Marissa as they focus their best on the success of Yoli Tortilleria. Their hard work, dedication to heritage and delicious products have James Beard recognition in front of their eyes. But while they’re excited about the acknowledgment, the real achievement for this couple is helping to promote a tortilla to the heights of a
world-renowned bakery.

“Yoli Tortilleria honors Mexican traditional cooking but uses local and seasonal ingredients found in the Midwest,” Marissa noted. “We enjoy introducing new flavors and products at our Yoli Westside retail shop,” Mark said. “Yoli Tortilleria is committed to the sustainability of farming practices in all their products.”

Hair and makeup by Jennifer Conroy of Hello Lovely

Yoli Westside Flour Tortillias and Retail Shop, 1668 Jefferson St, Kansas City, MO 64108 |