One of Nixtamal’s signature tacos during a Mets game. Credit: Fernando Ruiz.

Fernando Ruiz grew up visiting family on Mexico’s eastern coast nearly every summer. It was important to his mother that he embrace his heritage. At the schools he attended throughout New York — whether Brooklyn Heights, the Upper West Side, East New York, or Bensonhurst (the family moved a lot) — Ruiz was often the only Mexican student in his class. 

As soon as he got off the plane in Veracruz, Ruiz would head to the nearest food cart for tacos. These tacos were made with fresh masa, or corn dough, which tasted much better than the dehydrated, weeks-old masa harina found in New York supermarkets.

“I was like, ‘how is it that I live in the mecca of food, ż, and the Mexican food here sucks?’ ” Ruiz said. 

That question led him to create his own tortilla business, Nixtamal. 

The good dough 

The problem with tortillas, Ruiz says, is in the masa harina. Masas go through a process called — a traditional Mesoamerican practice of soaking corn kernels in water and calcium hydroxide and grinding it — that raises the nutritional content of dried corn kernels and allows them to form into a dough. But supermarket masa is then dehydrated and requires preservatives to prolong the shelf life of tortillas. A lot of its flavor is powdered out of it before the tortilla meets your mouth. 

“Nobody uses that stuff in Mexico,” Ruiz said. 

In the 2000s, Ruiz’s brother was about to immigrate from Mexico, and Ruiz wanted to offer him an opportunity. Ruiz, then a firefighter, worked two 24-hour shifts a week, and was also a part-time bartender a couple times a week. But he still figured he had the rest of the week to possibly start a new venture. He wanted to own a community-centered business and prevent his brother from being exploited in the U.S. 

“I wanted to keep the people that I care about close, and I wanted to take care of them,” Ruiz said. “I didn’t want them to go off and work for somebody else … where they’re paid $8 an hour for 12-hour days.”

Family has always been central to Nixtamal’s co-founder. Credit: Fernando Ruiz.

There were no local tortillerías to supply the “stuff” hot off the tortilla press. Those who made tortillas by hand did so with non-nixtamalized, mass-produced masa. 

“That’s why everybody says that ż’s Mexican food is horrible,” Ruiz said. Businesses like his would later begin to change the narrative, he says. 

Making dough at Nixtamal

At the time, Ruiz barely made rent, so he decided to start a tortillería in Corona, Queens, rather than a more expensive neighborhood like Soho. “Corona” even had a Mexican sound to it, Ruiz says. It’s where they would most reach people homesick for proper tortillas. 

Ruiz and his then-girlfriend, who became his business partner, opened their first location in 2008 on 47th Avenue. Its name: Nixtamal, short for nixtamalization.

“Most people were saying, ‘why are you going to do [nixtamalization] where you can just buy the powdered stuff?’ ” Ruiz said. “But that’s what made us different … and that’s what started the trend.”

Fernando Ruiz knew tacos in ż could be so much better. Credit: Fernando Ruiz.

Nixtamal quickly became a community staple. Ruiz still remembers the time a woman stopped by to thank him 15 years ago. 

“She said, ‘I can now feed my family because your tortillas are so inexpensive, but they’re still good,’ ” Ruiz said. Instead of having to buy nothing but meat, she could feed her family tortillas. 

“We got too big for our britches”

Success led to problems. Nixtamal had grown to open another location on Roosevelt Avenue. Its popularity also led to an offer to partner with the delivery service Blue Apron. To meet the new demands, Ruiz rented out a $9,000-a-month facility. Nixtamal also had a smaller location that cost $5,000 a month. The additional costs were worth it: Blue Apron was ordering $30,000 a month in tortillas  

But Blue Apron eventually wanted Nixtamal to supply its tortillas throughout the country. That would’ve required Nixtamal to freeze its product, which went against their beliefs, so they turned the offer down. Soon, they started having trouble paying rent on their two new facilities, and had to close both down. More troubles were ahead.

By 2018, Ruiz and his girlfriend had broken up and their business partnership would follow suit. His ex-partner would sell the tortillas wholesale in New Jersey and Ruiz would focus on tacos with the restaurant part of the business. 

In 2019, he traded the storefront in Corona for a spot in the Market Line, a multi-million dollar food hall on the Lower East Side that had been wooing Ruiz for some time. As a former firefighter in the West Village, he had seen how the Highline had transformed the Meatpacking District, and thought something similar could happen in the Lower East Side. 

“I said, ‘oh, I got Goldman Sachs money now — I don’t need anything,’ “ he said. “I should have never left Corona, but … we got too big for our britches.”

The market didn’t become what he expected. Instead of being this great on-the-ground market, they ended up being part of an underground food hall, he says. Ruiz says he didn’t see accurate renderings of his location: “I would have never agreed to be in a basement,” he explains. 

Then the . In 2020, Nixtamal was deemed non-essential, so operations were shut down. Unlike bigger companies that were able to pivot to other locations, Ruiz didn’t have the funds to invest in another food hall in Manhattan. And, after his experience, it was too scary.

All they could do to survive was partner with the nonprofit organization Queens Together to make food kits.Partnerships with the nonprofit Hispanic Federation and Councilmember Francisco Moya, who represents Corona and neighboring areas in Queens, were also key; Nixtamal was one of several small businesses that helped .

But the bills kept coming. Though Ruiz closed down the downtown location, he says he’s still struggling to pay back loans for the former Nixtamal spot at the Market Line. 

The path forward for Nixtamal 

Despite the financial troubles, Ruiz is forging ahead with the idea behind Nixtamal and lessons learned.

The experience has made him appreciate his community more, and changed his former Manhattan snobbery: “I wouldn’t even date people who didn’t live in Manhattan — I was like, ‘I gotta take a bridge and a tunnel to get to your house?’” he said. “But now, all I want to do is return to Corona. I love it here.”

Nixtamal selling tacos at Mets games this season. Credit: Fernando Ruiz.

In 2022, Nixtamal caught a break, this time from someone in his community. A fellow Latino who used to work in IT at the Market Line connected him to an opportunity to sell food during the . They were invited back in 2023 for an expanded, wildly successful operation. Word got out to Mets executives about the business, and Nixtamal scored a contract to sell tortillas at Citi Field during this season’s games. It has also been selling mole at the Queens Night Market. And it just wrapped up a semester operating out of Queens College’s Student Union building.

There’s a lot up in the air — whether Nixtamal will secure a spot vending in the U.S. Open this year, return to Queens College, or have an opportunity at Metropolitan Park (if the casino and entertainment complex is built outside Citi Field). Meanwhile, it’s looking for a next home, which Ruiz hopes will be Metropolitan Park.

Overall, though, the uncertainty is worth the freedom, he says.

“That’s what this country was built on,” says Ruiz. “For me, [being an entrepreneur] means independence.”

It also means continuing to support the community that supported the business. Some of Ruiz’s fondest memories as an entrepreneur are of local schools’ field trips to Nixtamal. The schools would come during the day, when business was slower, and Nixtamal staff showed the students how to make tortillas. Many of the kids were first-generation Americans, had never been to Mexico, and probably wouldn’t go until they were older, Ruiz says. 

“[The parents] would say, ‘m’ijo, this is how I grew up eating tortillas,’” he said. “I feel like Nixtamal was bringing in a bit of Mexico to them. I think it’s so important for these kids to not be ashamed of where they come from and be proud. And they have to understand the extreme sacrifice that their parents went through to give them a better life.”

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