DUBLINER Philip Martin has spent the past seven years producing authentic Mexican tortillas and chips in the heart of Ireland for customers across Europe.
Before that, he spent three months in Mexico, where he learned the art of traditional tortilla baking.
Upon returning to Ireland, he set up his own tortillera in Clonmel, County Tipperary.
Launched in 2015, Blanco Niño was the first – and remains the only – authentic tortilla bakery in Ireland.
It is one of the few found across Europe.
But what’s unique about Blanco Niño’s offering – named after the “white boy” nickname Mr Martin earned in Mexico – is that it uses the traditional Mexican technique of nixtamalization to produce its tortillas and chips. of tortillas.
This sees their raw ingredients – namely non-genetically modified maize (maize), lime and water – slowly macerate for 16 hours before being ground using hand-carved volcanic stone.
The company also only sources ingredients from historical producers in Mexico.
Such attention to authentic detail quickly put this Irish start-up on the path to success.
Blanco Niño has built a steady following within the restaurant and hospitality industry – with popular Mexican restaurant chains like Wahaca and Las Iguanas among their customers.
The business has grown steadily over the years, but especially so since 2020 – when the Covid-19 pandemic saw the company accelerate its plans to add a retail branch to its offering.
As lockdown hit in Ireland – and everywhere else in Europe – an all hands on deck approach was taken at Blanco Niño’s tortilleria in Clonmel.
The company now had to work hard to get its tortillas to supermarkets and to our shopping carts.
“We were still going to retail, definitely,” Mr Martin told The Irish Post this week.
“But the pace at which we got into retail has been very accelerated by the pandemic,” the 33-year-old admits, “we definitely wouldn’t have gotten into retail if we hadn’t made without Covid.”
The impact of the arrival of Covid-19 in Ireland was quickly felt by the company.
At the time, its clientele was mainly in the restaurant and hotel industry.
So when restaurants closed, sales of Blanco Niño dropped dramatically.
“Our sales were down 95% year over year in May 2020,” confirms Mr. Martin.
So retail had to be if they wanted to stay in business.
“At that time, everyone on the team was focused on launching the retail product,” he explains.
“The plans for our retail offering were already there, the equipment was already being delivered, but we had to go to great lengths to reach out to each independent retailer to get the product out there,” adds- he.
“It was a monumental, colossal exercise, but Covid gave us this focus on what we were doing and what we needed to do.”
They managed to bring the product to the retail sector within months, and their Lightly Salted, Chilli and Lime and Ancient Grain Tortilla Chips are now sold in over 360 retailers across Ireland, including including Dunnes Stores and Supervalu.
They also launched the range in the UK and Nordic regions in 2020.
But it’s their UK expansion that’s proving most exciting for the company now, almost two years later.
“In the UK we are now at Selfridges, Ocado, Gorillas and we are launching at Booths and Bayley and Sage next month in London which is quite exciting,” admits Mr Martin.
“There’s a huge amount happening for us in the UK, we also have a lot of different new products we’re working on,” he adds.
One such product is a range of salsas, into which Mr Martin says his team has put in “borderline mental” work.
“We basically looked at how to design and develop a complete manufacturing processing plant to make the salsas exactly the way we want them,” Mr. Martin said, “because in Europe most salsas are made in a way which is really looked like making soup.
He explained: “Everything is gathered in a big pot, almost boiled to death, then put in a jar and sold.
“But to really make an awesome salsa, you have to make it in stages, you have to grill certain ingredients.”
After researching the possibilities of producing a high quality salsa, Mr. Martin has now chosen to partner with an existing facility to create his new product line.
“We designed its entire manufacturing process and layout for our salsas,” he explains, “but we realized it wasn’t something we could really get into at the moment, in terms of all the people that would need to be hired and the equipment that would need to be purchased.
“Instead, we did a long exercise trying to find someone we could partner with to do it.
“We’ve kissed an awful lot of frogs but finally found someone and hopefully in August 2022 we’ll launch – we’re really excited about that.”
There is even more excitement among the 43-person team currently at Blanco Niño – which is based in Britain and Ireland – as the company has seen a rapid return to business in the catering industry since the lifting of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.
“Despite Covid kicking us in the face on the restaurant side, that side of things has really roared since everything reopened,” admits Mr Martin.
“We noticed that many owners, when they reopened their restaurants, said ‘we’re not going to do things exactly the way we used to, we’re going to simplify our menu, we’re going to look at local ingredients more authentic or higher quality, and we will make simpler offerings”.
“And in almost all of those underlying trends or forces, Blanco Niño came out on top.
“So the restaurant business is doing very well, and we see a lot of opportunity there.”
But their retail expansion is the real reason they have high projections for the continued success of the business – which expects to more than double its turnover to £3million this year.
“We expect the company’s revenue to more than double again this year and will likely continue to double in 2023 as well,” says Martin.
“We expect foodservice to continue to grow at a fairly rapid rate, so that’s part of our revenue projection, but really what it’s based on is that we have barely scratched the surface with the tortilla chip offering and the retail offering,” he adds.
“We have very quickly penetrated all the independent stores in Ireland, so in Ireland alone we expect turnover to quadruple at least this year, apart from the rest of the territories, which will increase to a much slower pace.
“The UK though,” he adds, “the UK is really there for the taking, we think.
“The response to the product has been phenomenal in the UK.”
Mr. Martin has every intention of taking the world of Mexican cuisine by storm in our supermarkets in the years to come, he admits.
“As we grow our line, we’ll stay 100% Mexican,” he confirms, “but we’re going to do to Mexican what Fever Tree did to tonic water.”
He adds, “They’ve taken it up a notch, you know, and that goes for us in that there are so many facets of the supermarket where Mexican is and can be so much better.”
Mr. Martin explains: “Each product category in traditional supermarkets usually has very clear differences on the spectrum of good, better and better products.
“But really, we’re one of the few categories that doesn’t have that clear differentiation.” Literally everything in the tortilla chip category right now is little triangles made from the same kind of stuff, with similar packaging and slight price variations.
“But there is a whole demographic of people who go to a supermarket and want to buy a quality product – and will pay the extra for it.
“We believe there is a vast unmet need for tortilla chips, and every retailer is missing a trick by not having this good, better, and better spectrum on their shelves.
“Blanco Niño is definitely the best in this spectrum,” he adds.
Mr. Martin is convinced that Blanco Nino is the company that will lead a Mexican food revolution in European supermarkets.
“We are not the only horse in town in Europe, but there is huge room for growth in this market,” he admits.
“So for us the opportunities are huge and the team and I are understandably excited about what’s happening on the track.
“Right now we have our tortilla, tortilla chips, and salsa, but there’s a lot more in the pipeline than that.
“But – and I don’t know if that’s the Catholic in me – I never want to sound too positive, in case you end up kicking your ass,” he adds.