Heads I win, tails you lose. A coin flip was what it came down to. Francisco and Delia Amezquita sat around the table with their two daughters, Dalia and Jeannette (otherwise known as Lily), deciding what to name their new tortilla factory. The year was 1988.
The Amezquitas came to the United States from Tijuana, Mexico in the early 1960s, eventually settling in City Heights. Francisco was a painter and Delia a secretary. They wanted to own their own business and observed their neighbors traveling to Tijuana for fresh tortillas.
Despite their inexperience in the tortilla business, they felt a good tortilla factory would be a hit with the growing Latino population in City Heights and surrounding area. At first they tried to borrow money from family and friends but found no takers. The idea of a painter opening a tortilla factory may have seemed a bit too risky. Francisco and Delia bet on themselves and were able to secure funding from a local bank.
They found a suitable place on University Avenue and 35th Street and as they sat around the table, were now deciding on a name. Francisco wanted to name it after one of the three women in his life but they all resisted. As wise husbands do, Francisco didn’t push the issue with his wife so it was down to Dalia and Lily. A coin flip ensued and Dalia won, meaning the factory would be named after her little sister Lily.
Francisco hired two men to teach him how to operate the tortilla-making machines, working from midnight to 4 p.m. every day. He soon learned that having paid employees eliminated his profit margin so he took over the business and ran it himself, with a little help from family members.
Over the years Lily’s has become famous for its fresh corn tortillas, with patrons lining up before the doors open at 5 a.m. Lily’s uses no preservatives, which improves the taste and health benefits but doesn’t allow for grocery store sales. Many of the tortillas are purchased by local restaurants and taco shops.
Lily’s keeps its product line small, offering only corn tortillas (flour tortillas require a different machine), chips, tostadas, and masa (dough used for making corn tortillas). Three machines run 10 to 12 hours a day, producing 330 tortillas a minute or 200,000 plus tortillas a day.
Lily’s moved to its current location on University and 43rd about 20 years ago, remodeling it in 2005. The business is now managed by Dalia (Hunt) and her cousin Jose Banuelos from an office above the factory. Francisco and Delia stop by on occasion to give advice.
Both Dalia and Lily went to medical school, with Lily focusing on pediatrics and Dalia on adult medicine. Dalia practiced in City Heights community clinics as an internist before she returned to Lily’s to run the business for her aging parents.
Dalia and Jose say business has shrunk over the past five years as other tortilla factories have opened and their profit margin has shriveled as the cost of corn has risen. They have 30 people on the payroll, down from the peak years but still a valuable employer in the community. They say they will continue operating Lily’s as long as people keep lining up at the door.
Lily’s is open daily from 5:00 a.m. until they run out of tortillas, about 2:00 p.m. They are closed on Wednesday.