STEW LEONARD'S LAUNCHES TORTILLERIA

NORWALK, Conn. -- Stew Leonard's has a hot new item in its bakery departments -- fresh tortillas.The three-store chain this summer began operating Connecticut's first "tortilleria" here, and early results were so successful that the company plans to put similar tortilla ovens in its Danbury, Conn., and Yonkers, N.Y., locations soon."We were not really happy with the quality of the tortillas that we

NORWALK, Conn. -- Stew Leonard's has a hot new item in its bakery departments -- fresh tortillas.

The three-store chain this summer began operating Connecticut's first "tortilleria" here, and early results were so successful that the company plans to put similar tortilla ovens in its Danbury, Conn., and Yonkers, N.Y., locations soon.

"We were not really happy with the quality of the tortillas that we were using to make our wraps -- the fact that they had a shelf life of several weeks," said Zita Sebastian, executive director of Stew Leonard's Norwalk bakery and prepared foods. "So, I took a trip to Texas, where they're famous for their Mexican foods and restaurants that make fresh tortillas right on the restaurant floor with presses and ovens."

"Stew [Leonard, company president] loved the idea," Sebastian continued. "It's in keeping with the company's philosophy of making products fresh and doing something unique. Here we are, three months later, selling about 10,000 tortillas per week."

In addition to tweaking recipes for regular and whole wheat tortillas, Sebastian has also begun experimenting with other flavors, such as sun-dried tomato and basil wraps, and garlic and spinach tortillas. All varieties are available in two sizes -- a 7-inch size sold in packs of 10, and a 10-inch size sold in packs of five. Both pack sizes retail for $2.79 each, or two for $5.

Trial is encouraged with what Sebastian described as "constant" sampling. "We have our bakers ask customers, 'Do you want to try a hot tortilla?"' she explained. "That's the catch word, the 'hot' part of it. How often have our customers had a chance to taste a hot tortilla?"

During breakfast hours, the department has done breakfast burrito demos to highlight the product's versatility, and the fresh tortillas have already become a popular item for customers making wraps at the salad bar.

The product also has strong appeal with kids, who need little encouragement to watch the baking process. Balls of dough are dropped into a three-level conveyor oven, only to emerge as huge, rapidly deflating balloons on the other end in about a minute.

"It's amazing how customers react, particularly the kids -- they've never seen something like that being made, and it only takes a minute," said Meghan Flynn, vice president of communications for Stew Leonard's. "They watch it go through and then out and then they can taste it right away."

Demand for fresh tortillas is strongest in Texas and pockets of the Southwest, where most Hispanics are of Mexican descent, and traditional cuisines use tortillas as a staple, noted Allen Lydick, president of Mexigrocers, a Raleigh, N.C.-based consulting firm. "Once you get outside of Texas, though, fresh tortilla operations are few and far between."

The uniqueness of the operation in Connecticut, as well as the theater it brings to the bakery department, made it a perfect fit for Stew Leonard's, which is known for preparing foods ranging from artisan breads to milk and cheese daily in its stores.