Small Business: Mexican food supplier’s journey from mezcal to corn tortillas – Ay, Caramba

Arturo Luna, founder and managing director of Auckland-based Mexican food supplier Ay, Caramba, talks early days of importing mezcal, growing his team and what happened after he acquired a food business two months before New Zealand’s nationwide Covid lockdown.

What does your business do?

Ay, Caramba is an importing and distribution business of Mexican products. We started importing just Mexican liquor about four years ago, basically as a hobby. We started to get asked for other products so we started an online shop and expanded to sell food service items such as corn flour to make corn tortillas. When we started importing corn flour for tortillas we were offered a local brand that makes them, Remarkable Tortillas, that was going to close down and we acquired it so now we have the manufacturing arm of tortillas and 120 items we import with Ay, Caramba for retail, restaurants and food businesses. Everything is authentic and imported from Mexico.

What was the motivation for starting it?

The business started in 2017 and I resigned from my job to focus on it full-time after a year of working on it in my free time. I had a friend opening a Mexican restaurant and he was trying to find mezcal and there was no mezcal he could access. I had contacts in Mexico that were producing mezcal at the time and I thought I’d give it a go. I had no previous knowledge in terms of importing it but it all started when I decided to bring in some cases and see what happens. We made a lot of mistakes with the first couple of imports – very small and expensive imports, but now we’re bringing in about six containers per year.

How big is your team?

Me and my wife run the business together and all together with Ay, Caramba and Remarkables we are now a team of 10 in both manufacturing, dispatching and sales.

How was your business funded?

I had some personal savings back in Mexico so I used that for my initial purchases to start the business because I had a big mortgage hit on my home, and now it’s self-generating.

How has Covid impacted the business?

When we acquired Remarkable two months after we were hit with Covid. When we bought the brand we went all in and that period was really hard. Remarkables was selling pretty much to restaurants or to distributors and all of them were closed, however, we noted that people were at home and buying a lot online so the Ay, Caramba business hit a peak for a while as we started getting a lot of online orders and that’s where the name Ay, Caramba started getting known. Prior to that we were only known by the Latin community, but following Covid we started getting orders from a broader range of people.

What are you spending the most time on right now?

We’re focused on food service and getting all of our key ingredients into restaurants. We want to be the full solution in terms of Mexican food supply.

What are your long-term plans?

We want to keep expanding the number of options of product for both retail and non-retail. We want to get into the supermarkets with our flour tortillas.

We are already in Pak’n Save in the South Island but as far as Mexican cuisine and culture is getting more popular we are getting more demand for corn tortillas, so I would like to get at least one of our corn tortillas skews into the supermarkets. In terms of the rest of our products, I don’t think the mainstream market is ready for them just yet.

What advice do you give others thinking about starting their own business?

Don’t give up and be persistent. Personally I was ready to give up several times because sometimes things in your mind are really easy when you plan them but when you execute them they are never what you expect them to be – especially at the beginning when you have no experience.

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