The booming tortilla business created a family fortune—and a battle to control it

Tortilla fortunes.
Tortilla fortunes.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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He was known as the King of Tortillas, and up until his death in August 2012, Roberto González Barrera watched his mighty Mexican empire flourish.

It’s still growing—the world’s hunger for tortillas seems insatiable—but the fortune amassed by González Barrera is stuck, caught in a legal battle between his ex-wife and his widow. Lorena Tassinari may have accompanied González Barrera during his final three years of life (they were supposedly married aboard his luxury yacht), but as Bloomberg reports, the courts have ruled that the tortilla baron’s vast fortune should go to Graciela Moreno Hernandez, his ex-wife, with whom he spent about 50 years.

A complicating factor in the case: there’s doubt that Tassinari ever legally married the late González Barrera, according to media accounts of the legal battle. Still, that hasn’t stopped Tassinari, a former soap-opera actress, from appealing her case.

There’s a lot at stake: the yacht, a luxury jet, millions of dollars, at least one house, and, most valuable, Gruma, which has become the world’s largest tortilla producer and has a market cap of nearly $6 billion. It makes household brands widely available in the US and Mexican markets, such as Mission and Maseca. Moreno Hernandez controls 52% of the company’s outstanding shares.

Gruma’s stock price has appreciated by more than 1,223% in the last seven years, boosting—perhaps with the help of some government cronyism (paywall)—the fortune of the wealthy Mexican family behind it.

The share price has grown along with demand for the company’s primary product. For the last 14 years, global tortilla sales have been on fire, and a big chunk of those sales have gone to Gruma. The company reported 2016 sales of $3.6 billion, three-quarters of which came from non-Mexican operations.

Gruma also makes tortilla chips, which have become a salsa-worthy $12 billion global business. A big piece of the market is in the US, where Baby Boomers, Millennials, and immigrant communities are scooping heat-centric products off grocery store shelves at an increasingly rapid clip.

No wonder Tassinari is so determined to hold onto a share of the fortune.