Spokane Journal of Business

De Leon Foods: Building a food empire

De Leons plans more restaurants, expansion of tortilla production

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-—Natasha Nellis
Sergio and Mayra De Leon, owners of De Leon Foods Inc., say they plan to open more restaurants and get products into more grocery stores.
-—Natasha Nellis
De Leon Foods Inc. makes tortillas at its grocery stores in Spokane Valley. The company currently distributes its tortillas to other supermarkets and about 25 Spokane-area restaurants.

Sergio and Mayra De Leon, owners of De Leon Foods Inc., are building a food empire in the Spokane area.

Under the De Leon banner, the couple currently own and operate two ethnic grocery stores and two restaurants, with plans for a third. They also produce their own lines of tortillas, chips, salsa, and tamales for distribution to other restaurants.

In addition to De Leon Foods, Sergio and Mayra also co-own Northwest Freight Handlers Inc., a freight handling service they started in 1995 that provides loading, unloading, and warehousing. The two companies now employ a total of nearly 170 people.

While Northwest Freight Handlers has maintained steady growth over the years, the couple says it’s their food business that has really taken off. 

The De Leons say revenue for De Leon Foods has increased by 220 percent from 2007 to 2017, and sales are set to expand even further   before the end of the year as they plan to add to their restaurants, perfect their current product recipes, and increase their production. 

Along the way, the couple say they also hope to build a legacy for both their children and community.

“Spokane is our home, and it’s a community that we’d like to see continue to grow,” says Sergio De Leon. “We hope our customers enjoy our new locations as well as they have our current ones.”

The couple’s two ethnic grocery stores, which specialize in ingredients for Mexican dishes, include the original location at 102 E. Francis, in north Spokane, and a Spokane Valley store that opened in 2015 in the former Huckleberry’s grocery store space at 15530 E. Sprague.

De Leon says the North Side store has about 10,000 square feet of retail space, while the Spokane Valley store occupies about 20,000 square feet, and the company employs about 60 people between the two stores.

“The Valley store is larger because about half that space is used for production of our tortillas and other products,” he says. “We make Sergio’s Tortillas, as well as tortilla chips, salsas, and tamales.”

De Leon says the company produces 800 dozen, or 9,600, tortillas every hour. He says the company currently distributes about 576,000 tortillas annually, not counting what’s used and sold at its own stores and restaurants.

The company currently distributes tortillas and chips to 25 Spokane-area restaurants, including Rocket Bakery, The Davenport Hotel, Wild Sage, El Borrachos, and the Cosmic Cowboy Grill.

Although their main offices are located at the grocery store on Francis Avenue, both Sergio and Mayra split their time working at each store, depending on need and scheduling.

“When we started the grocery, we added all these things—tortilla making, chips, tamales, and salsa—all at the same time,” De Leon says. “We saw a need for all these things, and the goal was to offer a little bit of everything, to be a one-stop-shop for Mexican groceries in the community.”

The two say that in the last few years they’ve concentrated on distributing their products to restaurants and small specialty shops, but their next step will be to begin developing relationships with larger grocery stores. 

 “Within the next year, we’ll be focused on improving our tortilla recipe and making it even more authentic,” says Sergio De Leon. “We want to start putting the tortillas into more grocery stores.”

De Leon says the company already has a good relationship with URM Stores Inc., the Spokane-based wholesale food distribution cooperative that owns Rosauers Supermarkets Inc.

“URM is our main supplier for products like meat and flours we use in tortilla making,” he says. “They’ve been a good partner so far in helping us to meet our customer demand.”

De Leon was born in Mexico and raised in Texas. He says the entrepreneurial spirit is strong in his family, as his parents, Anselmo and Francesca De Leon, own and operate a grocery store in Portland called Tortilleria Y Tienda De Leon.

De Leon says he came to Spokane in the 1990s, which was when he met his wife, Mayra. The couple have one daughter, Jessica, and three sons, Dewight, Anthony, and Eric.

Their middle son, Anthony, is the face of the De Leon Food’s company logo and is also known for having come up with the idea for the company’s Seattle Seahawks-inspired blue and green chips after the NFL team’s Super Bowl victory in 2013.

The couple’s eldest son, Dewight, now manages the De Leon Taco & Bar restaurant, at 10208 N. Division on Spokane’s North Side, and several other extended family members are employed at various De Leon Foods stores and restaurants.

De Leon says the couple’s first business, Northwest Freight Handlers, helped plant the idea to open their first De Leon grocery store in 2006. 

 “We moved into the food industry because Mayra got tired of working in warehouses and wanted to open her own business,” he says. 

 “We both have a passion for being self-employed, and our families are the same way,” he says. “We felt there was a lack of these kinds of products in the community, and we wanted to make them available for those who enjoy this style of cuisine.”

While the couple’s grocery stores each include a cafeteria-style restaurant area, in recent years, they have started to dabble in opening their own sit-down restaurant concepts.

Last year, the two opened their first De Leon’s Taco & Bar, at 10208 N. Division, in the Whitworth Square retail center, near Whitworth University. De Leon says the restaurant is known for its authentic take on Mexican dishes and bakery items.

“We’ve been trying to take a step back from this idea of having big plates with lots of items,” he says. “Our restaurants keep the menu smaller and more focused on tacos.”

Adds Mayra De Leon, “Street tacos are very popular right now, so we wanted to stick with that concept.”

The second De Leon’s Taco & Bar restaurant, which is scheduled to open this week, is a 3,000-square-foot building located at 2718 E. 57th, on the South Hill.

Sergio De Leon says, “We have about 16 employees at our current restaurant, and each of the new restaurants will need about 20 employees, so we’ll likely have close to 100 employees companywide by the end of this year.”

De Leon says the company currently leases its store and restaurant sites, although it will own the site for its soon-to-be established third restaurant at 1801 N. Hamilton, in the Logan neighborhood just north of Gonzaga University.

The couple purchased the 4,000-square-foot building, formerly occupied by Chapala Mexican Food, in March, and have been working with Spokane-based Grade A Builders to begin remodeling it.

“We’re hoping to open that location sometime in the next two months, before the end of the year,” says De Leon.

De Leon says he takes pride in the fact that his businesses are family owned and community focused.

“We are a small operation compared to many others, and we truly care for the community and do a lot to support it,” he says. “It’s our dream to one day pass our businesses on to our kids” he says.

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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