By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski | April 20, 2022
When Richard Abril died at age 47, leaving his wife, Carmen, with six girls and one boy, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work with their company, La Canasta Mexican Foods.
They provided tortillas to Garcia’s, Manuel’s and Macayo’s, among other Mexican restaurants. This year, the organization — which now includes a sister company, My Nana’s Best Tasting products — is celebrating its 60th year with its sights set high on growth, expansion and new product development.
“I can’t believe how time flies,” says Josie Ippolito, their daughter and current president of La Canasta Mexican Foods.
The Abrils opened La Canasta Mexican Foods in Phoenix in 1962. Their goal was to supply the Valley’s Hispanic community with fresh flour and corn tortillas.
As word of mouth grew about La Canasta’s authentic tortillas, so did the business, expanding into tortilla chips, salsas and buñuelos. Today, fans of My Nana’s Best Tasting products can find them in most retail grocery stores across Arizona and into the western states, including Texas.
Now, La Canasta makes 2.5 million tortillas daily in its Phoenix-based manufacturing facility. Thousands of pounds of whole kernel corn and flour are processed every hour, then they are made into dough that is pressed and sheeted into tortillas. Next, the tortillas are cooked, cooled, and packaged up to ship out. The whole process has been perfected with an intricate system of high-tech automated conveyors, ovens and cooling belts that make it possible to produce nearly 100,000 tortillas per hour.
It wasn’t always this way.
“We were doing a lot of it by hand,” Ippolito says. “She was very intuitive and a very astute businessperson. She said, ‘How can we do this better and faster?’ She was unbelievable.
“My mother was just amazing in her efforts to explore those opportunities while maintaining the best product quality that we had to begin with.”
The growth and modernization weren’t enough for Ippolito, who left the company, but her family said she was welcome to return, which she did. She founded My Nana’s Best Tasting products.
“The reason I started that company is I remember us, as kids, we would visit my grandmother, my nana, and she would make tortillas on a black cast iron stove for the grandkids,” she says.
“We would be running around eating hot tortillas with butter. She could never keep up. When I started thinking about what the brand name would be, I thought what better name than My Nana’s tortilla chips. She would fry tortillas and make chips out of them. We couldn’t get enough. That’s how My Nana’s was founded.”
My Nana’s Best Tasting products wasn’t a competitor to La Canasta Mexican Foods, as it didn’t offer chips.
“This tortilla chip is unique and different; they’re the same ones used in Garcia’s and Macayo’s,” says Ippolito, a Glendale resident. “It’s in a bag, and now customers can buy them. That’s when the restaurant-style tortilla chips came about.”
Ippolito contends that the chips aren’t the least expensive, but they’re “the best.”
“We make the tortilla first, chill it, and then we cut it and fry it,” she says. “That’s the only reason why they’re more expensive, because of the process. We know the quality is there when we do it that way. Otherwise, you’re a chip like everybody else.
“We don’t want to be that. You can put it in the microwave, warm it up and heat it, put some cheese on it and it will be just like what you taste in a restaurant.”
Recently, Ippolito unveiled a flour tortilla chip that is deep fried and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. She says the buñuelos have been incredibly popular.
“It took us a while to develop the recipe, but it was well worth it,” she says. “Little did we know it was going to hit like it did. The buñuelos are considered a Mexican dessert that are typically sold during the holidays — Christmas and New Year’s. We eat them for good luck for the coming year.”
Looking back over the years, Ippolito considers her mother her hero.
“Sorry if I get emotional,” she says before crying. “Supporting six girls and one boy, she still gave us all opportunities to grow within the company.
“At the age of 75, she started losing her memory, so we donate 1% of our sales to the Alzheimer’s Association. We hope that research will find some kind of cure. There are so many people with Alzheimer’s. She lived 12 years with Alzheimer’s. We took care of her at home. The seven of us would each spend one night with her every week until we couldn’t anymore. She was amazing.”
La Canasta and My Nana’s Best Tasting products