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Kansas City's Yoli Tortilleria earns national recognition with James Beard Award nomination

Yoli Tortilleria
Posted at 9:45 AM, Apr 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-12 11:04:53-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Since Yoli Tortilleria earned a James Beard Award nomination for Outstanding Bakery, it has seen even more business.

But for co-founder Marissa Tapia Gencarelli, the nomination is bigger than just gaining more customers.

Yoli's corn tortillas start with just three ingredients: corn, water and traces of lime. The nixtamalization process they go through means steeping that carefully sourced corn for hours.

“With Kansas, Missouri and Illinois corn for the most part," Tapia Gencarelli said.

She said that corn is then ground with volcanic stones which makes masa, a maize dough. The masa is then used to make Yoli's renowned tortillas.

“It makes your tortilla incredibly durable,” said Tapi Gencarelli, as she folded a tortilla into a ball in her hand and watched it spring back unbroken.

For her, these are more than tortillas. They’re partly memories of growing up in Sonora in Mexico.

“Every corner has a tortilleria, so depending on your neighborhood, it’s corn and flour,” she said.

When she moved to Kansas City and couldn’t find tortillas like home, she co-founded Yoli Tortilleria, selling both corn and flour tortillas.

“It is purely Sonoran style, so it’s a lot thinner," Tapi Gencarelli explained. "It’s chewy.”

Don’t be surprised if you get a hot and fresh flour tortilla right when you walk in the door at its Westside location.

“For me, it's just memories of being little, walking in, I’m just getting a hot tortilla," she said. "Sometimes it’s too hot to hold, but then you roll it up and just eat it — for me it’s perfect. “

KSHB 41 News Anchor Lindsay Shively first met Tapi Gencarelli in 2020, and since then, her business has just continued to grow. It ships to customers all over the country, and sells tortillas in some grocery stores and dozens of restaurants.

“We have over 100 restaurants in Kansas City alone now,” she said.

Now they are even more well-known after the tortilleria earned its first James Beard Award nomination.

“Saturday was nonstop, and this week, we’re over I would say 80% up in sales," Tapi Gencarelli said. "So it’s like 80%. It was insane. We keep restocking and restocking, so it’s good.”

For her, that national nomination is beyond just a boost in business.

“There is something about the tortilla getting the recognition, same as bread," she said. "There’s something very special that we never imagined that that was possible. I think that that’s just such an honor and I received calls from all over the tortillerias here in the United States and other areas from Belgium, from the Turkey area, all over and it's crazy because they’re just so excited that a tortilleria is being represented.”

And at Yoli, it has never just been about the food.

“We really started making it out of frustration and personally for me is how to deal with grief," Tapi Gencarelli said. "I lost my parents when I was young and so for me, making tortillas is a conversation with my parents."

She also said that to her, food is about connecting with people and sharing the feelings it evokes with others.

Beyond tortillas, Yoli has created some informative zines, self-published printed works about Sonora and masa.

You might have tried some of their burritos or tamales over the years or some of their specialty products you can sometimes find at their Westside location, like salsa macha. The company has plans to expand their food offerings at their Westside location in the coming months.

The 2023 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony will be held in June in Chicago.