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How Yoli Tortilleria went from at-home experiments to a James Beard Award

Yoli Tortilleria changed the bakery landscape of Kansas City through their innovative Mexican tortillas — landing them the title of “Outstanding Bakery” at the James Beard Awards.

Yoli Tortilleria James Beard Awards KCtoday

The walk of champions.

Photo via James Beard Award Foundation

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The James Beard Award is one of the most prestigious recognition in the American food industry — and this year, Kansas City’s very own Yoli Tortilleria brought the “Outstanding Bakery” title home to the 816.

City Editor Bella stopped by the Westside spot (1668 Jefferson St.) to chat with owner Marissa Gencarelli about the bakery’s journey to a James Beard.

Yoli Tortilleria KCtoday

Home of the “Outstanding Bakery” James Beard Award.

Photo by KCtoday

Q: Let’s lay a foundation... where did Yoli Tortilleria begin?

A: “I moved here from Mexico and I was doing a corporate job, and it wasn’t until I had my son that I realized how much I miss my food. We were taking my son as a baby back and forth to Mexico for all my aunts and uncles to see him. One of my aunts gave me a binder and I started cooking those recipes after work.”

“One of the things that I was missing was good tortillas. I didn’t know how to make tortillas at all. So I just started doing research and trying things out. Little by little, this hobby kind of overtook our brains of how to make it better. And before you know it, we were buying equipment. We thought this was going to be a side gig.”

Q: How has Kansas City been a part of the business?

A: “From the very beginning, we always focused on working with Kansas City shops. That’s all we were working on, getting with restaurants and working on building relationships. As we continue to grow, we’re building relationships with local farmers and understanding what we could use from them in order for us to be as local as possible.”

Q: Let’s talk about the James Beard Awards. What was that process like?

A: “We do not know how we even got in the running to begin with. There’s an open call in the fall and someone can submit your name, then you submit a video or an essay. After that, you can advance to the semifinals. Our category is a national category, so that means it was 20 businesses to get elected across the country. We were perfectly happy with that.”

“Then that goes into a big vote with more judges, and the top ones end up being finalists. When we got announced as finalists, we were so not expecting it. I was driving to do something, my husband Mark was working, just like a regular day. I think that kind of made it more fun.”

Q: What was your biggest takeaway from the awards experience?

A: “All the people that we have met along the way, absolutely, that I feel like otherwise we wouldn’t have met. We also got exposed to a lot of people in the foundation. In Chicago we joined the chef advocacy meet-up and you really leave there inspired. So many people are doing so many amazing things that it kind of restores your faith in humanity.”

Q: Then you won. What went through your heads when your name was called?

A: “We went to our seats way up high and we thought there’s no way that we won, we’re so far away. We decided to just get comfortable and really enjoy it because this is awesome and we can’t even believe we’re here. So when they did call, we just looked at each other like ‘Did we hear that right?’ and then we looked at the screen and saw our names. It was shocking and really an amazing day.”

Q: What does this award mean for the employees at the bakery?

A: “They’re very proud and excited about it. They were texting us all day. You know, nobody claps for a tortilla, it’s one of those things people eat and use every day. I think for myself, and a lot of the employees, it’s like finally, somebody noticed. It’s a big pat on the back that we are doing something good.

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