Meet Lynne Rowe, a language teacher who decided, in her 40s, to open a tortilleria (a tortilla bakery) using sustainably grown local corn and traditional cooking methods. In Maine, where no one else was making fresh tortillas at all and where for many people, a taco is still the crunchy thing that happens to ground beef in school cafeterias. Now, as her Tortilleria Pachanga approaches the one-year anniversary of its first delivery of tortillas made with MOFGA-certified Maine-grown corn (heritage and otherwise), we called Rowe. Our many conversation topics (she talks fast) included how a trip to Detroit changed her life, the connection between her two careers – we promise there is one – and an imaginary place called Awesome Town.

GOING SOUTH: Most of Rowe’s professional life has been as a Spanish language teacher, and that’s how she met her husband, Jonathan Radtke, a history teacher who is now the assistant principal at Falmouth High School. In their first year of marriage, they drove to Mexico in her yellow pickup truck and got teaching jobs in the state of Michoacán, in a town called Tangancicuaro in the middle of a “hugely fertile agricultural area” of corn and strawberry farms. That’s where she learned to cook Mexican food. And really appreciate fresh tortillas from the local tortilleria. Although often, she got there too late in the day. “I never understood how they could run out of tortillas,” she said. “Now I do.”

WHAT’S IN A NAME: We figured out that a tortilleria is the place where tortillas are made, but what does “pachanga” mean? Rowe picked it up from her days in Mexico. “It can be like a drunken bash,” Rowe said. “But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can also be a rhythm or a dance. In Mexico it is sort of a fun word for a gathering.” When she worked at the Waynflete School she introduced pachanga to the school lexicon, using it to describe family gatherings.

THE BIG CHEESE: Before the tortilleria idea came along, Rowe spent a year learning how to make Mexican cheese. She loves queso Oaxaca, a string cheese. But when she looked into undertaking that as a business, it didn’t make financial sense. “Milk in Maine is expensive,” she said. “A gallon of milk makes a pound of cheese. And queso (Oaxaca) is the kind of cheese you can easily eat a pound of.” She visited some tortillerias on her next trip to Oaxaca. “Then I started obsessing about it,” to the point where she said her husband grew weary of the conversation.

AWESOME TOWN: But her family and friends, who often joke about spending their retirement living in adjacent houses in a place they’ll call Awesome Town, were very happy to taste test. At home she tinkered her way through recipes for masa de maiz (a dough made from ground corn soaked in a lime solution). She slowly worked her way through a 50-pound bag of local corn from Crown of Maine, hand-grinding it as she went and refining her recipe and methods. The conclusion of the future residents of Awesome Town? The tortillas made with the wooden press she’d come home with after that first year in Tangancicuaro were delicious. But that wooden press wasn’t going to make more than a dinner party’s worth; she needed a full line of professional tortilla-making equipment.

TICKET TO RIDE: Her husband got on board after she told him she didn’t want to be the kind of person who always talked about taking a leap like this but never did. Together, they flew out to Michigan, where a baker in a town near Detroit had an entire line of tortilleria equipment for sale. He said he’d been given it as payoff for a debt. The oven alone weighed over 1,000 pounds. They bought the whole “shebang” and drove it back to Maine in a 26-foot truck.

PRESSING BUSINESS: It was another six months before the equipment went into regular use, during which time Rowe learned how hard it is to be a first-time entrepreneur. “It is really hard to get anyone to take you seriously if you have never owned a business before,” she said. She needed gas lines, vents and so forth to get her space on Industrial Way prepared for cooking. “I had one guy say to me, ‘Your business isn’t even real to me,’ ” she recalled. “I was like, ‘It’s really real to me.’ ” An Indiegogo campaign yielded $15,000 toward startup costs and a loan through CEI, a private, Maine-based nonprofit that offers business counseling, another $15K. All this time, Rowe never stopped working at her half-time day job (she coordinates language programs city-wide for the Portland public schools).

BY THE NUMBERS: Rowe buys her corn by the ton now, through a grain broker. And she produces between 5,500 and 6,000 tortillas a week. Not enough to her mind. “We’re making about 300 or 400 pounds a week, but we really should be making more like 600 to 800 pounds,” she said. She has teamed with mushroom growers and foragers Maine Cap N’ Stem in Portland to do direct distribution, which means Tortilleria Pachanga’s product is now traveling to Bangor, Belfast, Blue Hill, Ellsworth, Rockport and Rockland in the family’s dingy old green minivan, along with some equally perishable mushrooms. Rowe’s tortillas aren’t cheap, either to make or buy. Restaurants typically spend about 3 cents per tortilla, she said, but she has to charge restaurants at least five times that (El Rayo was one of her first customers, but Rowe said her tortillas proved too expensive for them.) A retail package of eight, available at places like Rosemont Markets and the Portland Food Co-op, sells for just under $4, she said. Rowe also sells or has sold at farmers markets, including in South Portland and Standish.

CORN OF PLENTY: The year has been overwhelmingly positive, she said, particularly in terms of support she’s gotten from local businesses, like the brewers and distillers who’ve given her lessons in how to hang a grain bag for easier access to that Maine corn. But if she’s going to truly make a living, Rowe wants and needs to grow Tortilleria Pachanga. She hoping to add other masa products to her line, maybe tamales and molotes (a Oaxacan street food a lot like empanadas). One thing she’s not worried about is her corn supply, even though she needs non-GMO, organic local corn. She uses primarily Yellow Dent corn but also some Abenaki Flint, a heritage variety she likes. It all comes from Sandy River Farms in Farmington. “They have enough for my needs right now, even if we doubled our business.” Which to her mind, would be Awesome Town.


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