For most, tortillas are often bought in bulk from the supermarket in cold, stale shape. A warm, freshly made tortilla is hard to find—a simple fact that led Mexican-born Carlos Ruiz to create the Flatev (short for "flatbread evolution"), a new instant tortilla-maker. While the idea seems simple, it took Ruiz's moving to Zurich for him to understand the full scale of the worldwide tortilla depravity.
"I was very disappointed with the restaurants and the tortillas from the supermarket. I missed my mom's homemade tortillas and when I tried to make them by myself, all I made was a mess," Ruiz tells CH. "I understood why people stopped doing this at home—they don't have enough time, and it's a pain." Drawing additional inspiration from the brilliance of Nespresso, Ruiz pulled together a team and got the ball rolling—with the help of some investors and a couple of start-up competition wins to boot.
We met with Ruiz and his Zurich-based team while they were in New York to see the machine in action and taste the results. The final design of the machine is still in progress, but Ruiz demonstrated how it will work on one of the functioning prototypes. Simply warm the machine up and insert a pod of tortilla dough (which need to be kept refrigerated) at the top. What goes on inside is for now an engineering mystery—the Flatev patent is still pending—but almost like magic, a warm, flat tortilla with irregular edges pops out less than a minute later.
While convenience is a major priority for Flatev, so is taste: Ruiz emphasizes the importance of eating the tortilla while it's hot, because temperature drop greatly affects the flavor. We tried a taco made with meat purchased from Chelsea Market's Los Tacos No. 1 and found the tortilla to be moist and neutral in flavor, allowing the carne asada toppings to shine. Aside from plain flour and gluten-free corn options, the Flatev team has experimented with blue corn, garlic, chile guajillo, bacon and even cinnamon tortillas (which Ruiz recommends topping with Nutella and fruit for a crêpe-like treat). They also plan to expand their offerings to other flatbreads beyond tortillas such as naan and roti.
Ruiz tells us the very first Flatev prototype "was a cable salad. From the outside, it looks beautiful, but inside, it was like, 'Better not touch anything or you'll get an electric shock.'" Through user feedback they not only refined the internal mechanics, but also considered the difference between coffee and tortillas—usually a person drinks one coffee at a time, but eats (on average) three to four tortillas per meal. The early prototype popped out a single tortilla onto a waiting plate, but the newer version includes a warming tray in the form of a pull-out drawer.
Curiously, Ruiz's inspiration—the Nespresso—was introduced in 1986 by a young engineer working at Nestlé. "It took them 20 years for them to be what they are. But now, people understand what the pod system means: convenience and quality," Ruiz explains. The concept of single-pod machines keeps spreading. Starbucks has their own version, and Keurig made a bold move when they announced a collaboration with Campbell's Soup last fall. Flatev, however, is purportedly the first to offer solid food in a pod format and a machine to prepare it in.
Ruiz admits for now they're using plastic pods, but ideally they will soon be able to make the pods from biodegradable materials. But, while coffee pods need the grounds to be cleaned out before recycling them, Flatev's pods are clean after use since they use a ball of dough.
Pre-order the Flatev online by signing up for the waiting list, which will (hopefully) retail for $199 once it's on the market. The pilot batch is expected to release fall 2014 for selected partners in restaurants, bars and airport lounges, and in early 2015 for consumers.
For those in NYC, you can taste Flatev tortillas yourself tomorrow, 29 May 2014, at their happy hour event at the Cowork|rs space from 6-9PM.
Photos by Nara Shin