Lydia Gutierrez works.
She works as president of Hacienda Mexican Foods in Detroit. She works as a stellar community leader in, and as a fervent ambassador of, southwest Detroit. And she works a room she passes through, embracing her employees like family as she asks about their weekend, genuinely interested.
In a large building, an immaculate assembly line runs, finally reaching “the seasoner,” a tube that gently tosses tortilla chips as it rolls, affixing flavors. This is one of the final steps before another conveyor whisks the chips to packaging in a process that takes days to make the tasty two-bite triangles. This plays out throughout each day at the Hacienda Mexican Foods plant. The name might not immediately ring a bell, but chances are if you’ve eaten Mexican food in southeastern Michigan, you’ve eaten something that started at Hacienda.
“We don’t warehouse anything. We’re producing based on orders,” Gutierrez explains. “When the customer is reaching for that Hacienda product, they have to know it’s a fresh product.”
While the tortilla chips are most prolific, Hacienda also produces corn tortillas and tostadas and flour tortillas, plus a host of other items from taco shells to pita chips and even packaged dried peppers. Many of the items are sold under a slew of recognizable private labels or go nameless in countless restaurants and concession stands at venues including DTE Energy Music Theatre, The Henry Ford and The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Established in 1995, Hacienda Mexican Foods began with five employees in a 7,000-square-foot facility. Today Hacienda includes more than 80 employees and three plants totaling 66,000 square feet, plus a retail building. Gutierrez says that she hopes to move all of the production under one roof within the next year. And she isn’t leaving Detroit to do so.
“This is where it all began and this is where we call home,” says Gutierrez, a native of south – west Detroit. “We are an economic driver to the city,” she explains. “Most of our employees live within a two-mile radius, probably 90%. Many of them walk to work or ride their bikes to -work. That’s really important to our location.”
Gutierrez is a voice in the community, and she takes that commitment seriously. She serves on several area boards and is the chair of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, where she helped start Michigan’s only Business Improvement District. Group president Kathy Wendler says Gutierrez models integrity on all fronts: in business, in community investment and in personal values.
“Lydia’s whole life is this community,” says Wendler, calling Gutierrez an incomparable role model. “She’s really spectacular. She’s a business competitor with the best. It is her brain and her people skills that move her business to the huge success that it has been.” And that success means jobs for residents.
“I find if I’m not at the table, our community is not being thought of. I try to advise for our community as much as I can,” Gutierrez says. “ I think it’s important as a business owner. Your community gives you so much. It’s a way to give back.”
Gutierrez encourages Hacienda employees to be all they can be, and offers on-site food safety education classes to encourage employees to gain certification and earn raises as they complete levels. “I want to help develop our employees so if we’re growing, they’re also growing,” Gutierrez says. “Our employees are important to us, because we care about them. So we don’t have a lot of turnover.”
And taking care of locals adds to being local. Hacienda even uses oil from a local supplier and all-local packaging. “We’re in a time right now where local is real important, so buying our products helps us to continue to put people to work and that money goes back to our community, and to our region and to our state,” Gutierrez says.
Another way Gutierrez gave back to the community is through the exterior walls of the Hacienda retail space at 6016 W. Vernor. On one, titled Maiz Detroit, a farmer’s outstretched hand reaches for a cornstalk. In his other hand he holds a perfect cob of corn as he looks toward the never-ending blue sky, smattered with clouds. Chilean muralist Dasic Fernández created Maiz Detroit and the opposite wall’s Victoria Violeta in 2010. Haci – enda carried through the Maiz Detroit design on its packaging.
“We had talked about that particular piece because I wanted it to be the obrero—the farmer—the person working on the farm,” she says. “The murals sparked a tremendous amount of interest and pride.” Community pride will help Detroit reach its goals, Gutierrez says. “The City of Detroit is a mine. We call it a ‘mina de oro,’ a mine of gold. It takes a little bit of time to break away the different parts of the mine, but if you keep at it, you reach the gem.”
Gutierrez is quick to point out all that’s going on in southwest Detroit. Restaurants and retail stores are popping up all over the place. “ You can get a little flavor of all of Latin America right here in southwest Detroit,” she says, listing Vernor Food Center, Honey Bee Market and E & L Supermercado as examples. You can go up and down West Vernor to see stores bustling with their products. “ You’re going to get [food] here in the retail stores that you don’t get anywhere else.”
Shoppers can find Hacienda products, bearing the company’s own labels or a variety of private labels, at metro Detroit markets including Holiday Market, Hollywood Market, Westborn Market and Plum Market. “We’re a quality manufacturer. Home grown from our ovens right to your dinner table,” says Tim Lee, sales director. “They’re eating our stuff and they don’t even know it.”
Freelance writer Cara Catallo is a regular contributor to edible WOW. This story was originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of edible WOW. Find more great stories at ediblewow.com