As the lights dimmed and the nominees for Outstanding Bakery reverberated throughout the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Marissa Gencarelli turned to her husband Mark and both exchanged soft smiles. They understood how difficult it was to win a James Beard Award and it was an honor to have even made it this far.
By that point in the ceremony, Marissa had already loosened the straps on her high heels. After all, she probably wouldn’t be making the long walk to accept the prestigious award. There was just no way the winners would be seated that far back in the auditorium, she thought. But it was fine. Alongside so many great nominees — some of the best bakeries in the nation — being mentioned in the same breath was enough for her. The crowd cheered as the anticipation grew. Then silence, deafening.
“And the winner is... Yoli Tortilleria!”
Disbelief and excitement overcame. Heel straps were tightened hastily as Marissa stood and began that long, unexpected walk to the stage. In many ways, it was representative of the long, unconventional journey she’d made to arrive on that spring afternoon in Chicago.
Born in Sonora, Mexico to a local lawyer and a teacher from California, Marissa’s upbringing was woven with multi-cultural experiences. From a young age, and as far back as she can remember, her parents instilled the importance of her heritage and the celebration of her culture in all that she did. Every summer, her family would load up their car and travel across Mexico, making frequent stops along the way to experience the rich history and beauty of Mexican culture — including its local flavors and cuisine.
“Some of my earliest and fondest memories completely transformed how I perceived Mexican culture and food,” Marissa smiled. “For a young girl, those long trips on unpaved roads could be exhausting, but seeing the countryside and experiencing the culture has had the biggest influence on my life.”
Looking back, those road trips meant the world to Marissa, not only because they offered an authentic, invaluable glimpse into a country she cherished but because they were spent alongside the family she loved. So, once she began a family of her own, it was of the utmost importance to preserve that tradition.
After meeting Mark abroad in Italy, they had their first child, Santiago, and moved to Mark’s hometown of Kansas City. They began traveling to Mexico to help pass that cultural love and understanding along to their son. But something interesting happened during those frequent trips. That adoration turned into a desire to bring authentic Mexican cuisine back home.
“Whenever we’d travel, we always brought high-quality tortillas back so we could enjoy authentic meals throughout the year. But when we ran out, there were never good local alternatives,” said Marissa. “So, nearly a decade ago, I began cooking tortillas myself. Mark and I would improvise, trying recipes that would introduce different flavors and ingredients to our family. We’d cook two to three times every week, which allowed me to put my heart and soul into the food we prepared.”
Her focus and dedication to create something authentic served as Marissa’s guiding light and thus, the idea of owning their own tortilleria was born. She and Mark continued prepping and honing their craft, all while holding down full-time corporate jobs and welcoming their second child, Siena, to the world.
And then there was the brand’s name. It had to pay homage to Marissa’s history while honoring those experiences that had influenced her path. And that’s how Yoli Tortilleria came to be. Yoli, meaning “to live,” embodies an adventurous lifestyle, travel and memories — fully embracing those bumpy rides and cultural encounters. And the emblem, prominently displayed on every product that Yoli creates, is a representation of Marissa’s mother, who was her biggest inspiration and advocate.
Yoli now had an identity and that’s when the magic grew. Local restaurants began carrying Yoli products, exposing the community to incredible Mexican cuisine. Pop-ups showcased the brand, relationships were developed and word spread about this new, up-and-coming tortilleria in Kansas City. That hype — built upon love, hard work, bravery, exploration and passion — eventually led to the long walk one spring afternoon in Chicago.
As Marissa made her way onto the stage, a medallion with James Beard’s likeness — the first of its kind for exemplary bakeries — waited to take its place around her neck. She fumbled through her purse, looking for the scrap of paper she had scribbled a speech on. The spotlight shone bright. All eyes on her.
“Thank you. I wrote this just in case and I’m glad I did. Yoli was born out of dealing where life had taken us. We were in a very weird space and reaching our forties and, more than twenty years ago, I’d lost both of my parents. I have now lived most of my life without them. Baking became our therapy. A way to connect and honor my ancestors, in the middle of North America. Thank you for the opportunity and for helping us honor the very humble tortilla. Gracias totales to the Beard Foundation, to our friends, family, our children — Santiago y Siena, who put up with us so much and all our crazy schedules. And our city, Kansas City. Without you, we would not be here, so thank you so much. Muchas gracias.”
Long, bumpy road trips paved the way to create the truly remarkable. Genuine desire for others to experience Mexican cuisine created the foundation for Yoli Tortilleria, and the influence and support from Marissa’s family dissolved any doubt from those who discounted her dreams. Now, an excited and invigorated industry is fixated on those humble, award-winning tortillas.