Latvia's Tortilla Conquistador
"There is no teaching," says Viesturs Luis AiagarÅ¡, about his failed attempt to teach Latvians about Mexican food. "You have to fit the product into their expectations. Not the other way around." Latvians weren't eager to consume tortillas. They didn't even know what they were.
Zagars didn't have trouble with only his end users' expectations; he had trouble with the stores. "They categorized me as TexMex, and they expected salsas and all the sauces which go with TexMex food. I don't want to compete in a niche market. I want to compete in the market at large."
And so what most of the world calls a tortilla, became a Å¡aÅ¡liku maize in Latviaâ€”shish kabob bread. "Latvia has a national meat but no national bread. So I've created it!"
Creating things isn't new to Zagars. Before he was the tortilla king, he was the owner and operator of the Riga restaurant Sidruns. But according to Zagars, a restaurant has a life of about one thousand days. "Those making money are the guys supplying the restaurants," he says. "Most of the gold miners in California didn't get rich, but Levi Strauss certainly did."
And before Zagars was in the restaurant business, he was a medical doctor. He's always been interested in the "fit for life" philosophy, and preaches diet and exercise as keys to health. "If you take care of yourself, there are very few times in life you need a doctor: for childbirth, for surgeries." Not that Zagars isn't a fan of medicine; he's just a bigger fan of proper diet and lifestyle. "Our ancestors were hunters, and now we're sedentary. With a good diet and exercise, you can actually beat your genetic makeup."
His breads are not inconsistent with his beliefs as a physician. There are no unnatural oils in tortillas. And flat breads are one of the oldest, healthiest things you can eat. "Was it Benjamin Franklin who said he'd rarely seen anyone die of starvation but that he'd seen plenty die of overeating?" Zagars asks.
And before Viesturs Luis Zagars was a doctor, he was a young man growing up in the hotel business in Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border. His father is Latvian, his mother American. He grew up speaking Spanish and English and learned Latvian only after moving here. He's now learning Russian. "Language is a tool," he says, "and without that tool I am deaf and mute half the time in Riga."
While it's too early to predict whether his company will be a successâ€”his factory in Lielvarde is operating at only a fraction of capacityâ€”the early signs are good. His "shish kabob breads" are starting to sell, indicating Latvians aren't having a problem understanding them. His wraps, the larger flat breads used for burritos, have been adopted by Latvian children who have created their own word for them. While there is no direct translation to English, the Latvian word plays in the area between "it rules" and "it rolls."
"In the United States, the average American eats three tortillas per day," says Zagars. While he recognizes that Latvians are not Americans, he thinks there is room for improvement. "It's a love-hate relationship with Latvians. They either love my tortillas or hate them." Here's hoping there's enough love in Latvia to keep Mr. Zagars in business.