Yoli Tortilleria comes from a desire to find fresh, quality tortillas in Kansas City by founders Mark and Marissa Gencarelli. It is inspired by Marissa’s upbringing; she was born and raised in Sonora, México. Yoli products reflect the rich diversity in Mexican cuisine. They follow traditional processes native to México, but they use local and seasonal ingredients found in the Midwest.

They produce stone-ground corn tortillas, Sonoran-style flour tortillas, salsas, tamales, and aguas frescas. They recently introduced Eat Yoli zine series where storytelling intersects with food. Customers enjoy their retail experience in the Westside neighborhood in Kansas City. 

Already their bakery is receiving high acclaim. Just this week, Yoli Tortilleria was named the winner of the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Bakery (presented by Guinness) This category recognizes a baker of breads, pastries, or desserts that demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality, and operations, while contributing positively to its broader community.

The James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards — established in 1990 and first awarded in 1991 — is one of five separate recognition programs of the James Beard Awards®. This program celebrates excellence across a range of experiences, from fine-dining establishments to casual gems, and emerging talents to established leaders. The 2023 Restaurant and Chef Nominees are recognized across 22 categories, including a new Award for Outstanding Bakery.

“It’s incredibly humbling. We did not seek this path,” Gencarelli says. “I don’t start doing a job because of the awards. My husband and I are both incredibly grateful. We are obsessive about making things better every time.”

Early influences

From the very beginning, this philosophy and commitment to exploration is something that has been in Yoli's DNA. Originally from Sonora, Mexico, Gencarelli considers herself “half American, half Mexican.” Her father is a lawyer, her mother a professor.

Yoli’s hero is inspired by founder, Marissa's mother, who had a deep passion for Mexico – an American who married a Mexican and adored its culture. Her bravery, love, and exploration of Mexican culture continue to inspire. Marissa's mother's spirit is captured with her round sunglasses and scarf and is often combined with the landscape her family drove on her road trips through Mexico.

Yoli_Tortillas.jpgSource: Yoli Tortilleria

Growing up humbly in northwest Mexico, it was at times difficult to find milk or cheese. The family might drive all the way to Yucatan where they would discover interesting drinks like chocolate water. Dark bittersweet chocolate is used to make the drink, instead of using milk, and is considered an alternative to coffee.

They grew up during the peso crash, and kidnappings in Mexico happened left and right – “just a fact of life,” she admits. Her father motivated her because he spoke like Barack Obama, sharing motivational messages and keeping the family going.

“Those memories are engrained in me – learning how different every single region of Mexico (where there are 32 states) is. We would go to the jungle where I would see parrots flying around. Another time we might be traveling through the desert.”

Her father, she says, “was an incredible cook,” and those family adventures continued until she was 12 years old. As an adult, she worked in an entirely different world (a corporate job in health-care technology) for 16 years. But she remained connected to her roots, and she was overjoyed when her father shared a family binder filled with hundreds of handwritten recipes.

This small gesture opened the floodgates to a brand, new career.

“I told Mark, ‘Let’s buy some corn and get a crank. What if we get a good mill?” noting at the time that both worked as corporate businesspeople. “We went to Los Angeles to find a tortilla machine. We planned to do this at night and then sell our tortillas at a farmer’s market.”

Mark started setting up samples and giving fresh products to local chefs. Then, an important customer asked, Can you do this seven days a week?

They said yes, of course. Mark wound up leaving his full-time corporate job, and Marissa followed suit one and a half years ago, as their new business grew brisk. They have a production kitchen and a retail shop now. Everything was self-financed, she says.

They specialize in corn and flour tortillas. “Corn is everything in Mexico, but flour tortillas are in my heart,” Marissa explains. “Flour is the more traditional tortilla in Sonora where I’m from. I still have family in Sonora.”

Their Kansas City business has grown steadily, now with 15 employees. Gradually, they plan to introduce new items such as regional salsas, tamales, and sweet breads. They are introducing fresh chips under their brand (made with different heirloom grains) later this year.

“This is the mad scientist part of me,” Gencarelli says with a smile. “We are going to start making conchas, elotes, and lots of different things. For me, it is about what’s the dish I want to make, and what are the principles you are looking for. Little by little, we will introduce new products and see how they sell.”