- people on the move
Tortilla makers roll past the year mark
J&J Tortilla Co. distributing ‘good, clean’ stone-ground flour tortillas to nearly 20 West Michigan stores.
Jason and Jaclyn Brzezinski got a little help from their friends to make their dreams of owning a family business come true.
The couple, who now live in Hopkins with their three children and one on the way, several years back befriended John and Debbie Peters, who own J&D Peters Tortillas, Family Farm & Bakery in Vienna, Ontario.
Jaclyn Brzezinski described the older couple — who have nine children — as being “like parents” to her and her husband. Following several years of encouragement and mentorship from the Peterses, the Brzezinskis decided to make their dream a reality and launched J&J Tortilla Co.
“After meeting them and just (knowing) the things we love about food — good, clean food — learning how they make their tortillas, we were inspired, and they were very instrumental in helping us to get our own business started,” Jaclyn Brzezinski said.
The Brzezinskis bought gently used equipment from a connection in Wisconsin they met through the Peterses and began testing and adapting the recipe the couple shared with them.
Josh and Melody Nobel, owners of Melody Bee Farms in Alto, provided space for J&J Tortilla Co. to start making their tortillas under cottage law, and the Brzezinskis began selling the products at farmers markets in Rockford, Caledonia and Ada.
After learning they couldn’t build a commercial operation inside an accessory outbuilding where they lived at the time due to Cascade Township zoning restrictions, the Brzezinskis decided to go rural.
Friends they knew from Hopkins contacted them to say a 10-acre parcel with a house and room for an outbuilding was up for sale just a mile down the road. The Brzezinskis bought the property in December 2016, recognizing its prime location equidistant from Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and the lakeshore.
Jason Brzezinski worked with Hopkins Township to get the necessary approvals for building a commercial facility. Allegan County Health Department required the facility to have a separate septic system than the one for the house, so they put one in, then began building the commercial bakery.
Last fall, the business secured its final approvals and the couple jumped into full-blown commercial production.
Jaclyn Brzezinski quit her job as a registered nurse at Spectrum Health to keep up with the business, while her husband left his full-time wealth management job at Northern Trust in downtown Grand Rapids and took a part-time job as a bookkeeper and accountant at Speese Painting in Rockford. The rest of his waking hours are devoted to their business.
J&J Tortilla Co. products include kamut, spelt, organic white, nonorganic white and whole wheat tortillas; along with spinach garlic and tomato basil wraps.
In the past year, the business has gone from having zero retail customers to 17 and counting: Meijer’s Bridge Street Market, Grand Rapids; Central Park Market, Holland; Doorganics online delivery service, Grand Rapids/metro Detroit; Earth Fare, Portage; Harding’s, Wayland; Harvest Health, Hudsonville, Grand Rapids and Cascade Township; Horrocks Market, Kentwood; Kingma’s in Ada and Plainfield Township; Midtown Fresh, Kalamazoo; Natural Health Food Center, Kalamazoo; Nature’s Market, Holland; PFC Grocery & Deli, Kalamazoo; Sawall Health Foods, Kalamazoo; and WM FarmLink, Grand Rapids.
“Once we got into stores, that kicked it off,” Jason Brzezinski said. “(Before), we were kind of flying under the radar. Our main outlets were the farmers markets, which actually was great because we built up a nice little customer base. Once we did get into the stores, a lot of those people followed.”
J&J Tortilla Co. still sells products at the Kalamazoo, Fulton Street, Holland and Rockford farmers markets and takes bulk orders on its website, jjtortillas.com.
The Brzezinskis do all their own production and distribution but have a couple of employees who help with packaging and others who sell their products at the farmers markets.
Now, the pair have their sights set on distributing to local SpartanNash stores, including Forest Hills Foods and D&W Fresh Market locations. They also are aiming to expand into another Earth Fare location in Kalamazoo and get their products into Health Hutt stores on the lakeshore.
Jaclyn Brzezinski said the flavor and the ingredients are what make their tortillas special.
“The biggest thing is we don’t use preservatives. The only thing that preserves them is refrigeration,” she said. “And they’re fresh. Right now, other than our tortillas, the only other nonpreserved tortillas you can get are frozen. But we deliver ours fresh, and we bake them weekly. Organic tortillas are available, just not in this form.”
Jason Brzezinski said the tortilla industry’s reputation has been tainted by flavorless products.
“No matter what store you go in, typically, the tortillas are in the nonrefrigerated aisle, and they can sit there for, probably months. Definitely because all of those have preservatives in them, there’s definitely a compromise in taste. That’s one of the biggest compliments we get from people, that ‘Oh my goodness, I can actually taste this.’”
Most of the wheat used in J&J Tortilla Co. products is sourced from western states. The couple said they experimented with using Michigan wheat but found the moisture content too high to facilitate a decent shelf life for their tortillas without using preservatives. The varieties they settled on allow the tortillas to last up to 28 days in the refrigerator. They also can be frozen.
Jaclyn Brzezinski said the ancient grains, also sourced from the west, contain gluten that isn’t as strong as that of regular wheat, so oftentimes, gluten-sensitive customers say they are able to eat the kamut and spelt products.
The name of the game right now for J&J Tortilla Co. is managed growth. Jason Brzezinski said the company expects to turn a profit the year after next. If expansion is necessary in the next five years, they plan to do it on their existing property.
“Our goal is to keep it a family business,” Jaclyn Brzezinski said. “If our kids like it, they can help us someday.”
She added: “We try to be careful with our ingredients, just like we would when we’re feeding our family. We try to feed our kids clean, quality foods and as much organic as we can, and so that is our goal with our product.”
“‘Simple ingredients’ is what we have on our logo there,” Jason Brzezinski said. “Labels today are like horror novels. It’s this long list. You can try to read through it, but you don’t understand what 95 percent of the stuff is. People look at our label, and they’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s like five different things here. I can read this and understand it.’”