Martinborough’s Cartel Food Company was born out of a desire to offer high quality frozen Mexican food, revitalising the Mexican food genre and reinvigorating the frozen food market. The team spoke to Melissa Phillips about the business.

What is your company background, how did you start the business?

“We are the Cartel Food Company. We produce frozen burritos. El Jefe (which means “the boss” in Spanish) is Jason Philips and I am his high school sweetheart, Melissa Philips. We started our business two years ago because we saw an increase in Mexican restaurants, fast food chains, and food trucks which indicated a growing trend. We also observed in supermarkets new Mexican hot sauces, spice mixes, tortillas, and other ingredients. Amongst this growth we noticed a gap – no convenient authentic Mexican food.”

“Jason previously lived in the USA, where burritos were a diet staple. He decided his consumption of burritos qualified him as a burrito expert. Initially Jason researched creating a Fresh Burrito kit to be positioned amongst the fresh premium convenience food in supermarkets. With a commercial eye, Jason was concerned about the logistical difficulties of producing and distributing a fresh product with a short shelf life. This concern about perishability led Jason to a pivotal moment in the formation of our business: “What about a frozen burrito?”

“Frozen burritos were a ubiquitous convenience food in the USA. The advantage of frozen was that it would remove the issues of shelf life and spoilage. These were the two major concerns with a fresh burrito kit. From the outset the intent was to build a nationwide brand with the scalability to ultimately export. Frozen burritos have a 12-month shelf life, so this satisfied our future growth criteria.”

“With this change in direction we shifted the focus of research from fresh to frozen. Ironically a conversation with a large food manufacturer where they described the frozen category as “stagnant and lacking in innovation,” confirmed we were on the right track. Dominated by pies, the frozen snack category was ready for something new. We believed that a frozen burrito would provide a new, different, and healthier alternative.”

“At the same time, we noticed that change was afoot in the frozen category. We saw a new focus on quality in the freezer. We’d noticed a variety of new premium products such as gourmet ice cream, organic berries, and free-range chicken.  This coupled with the Mexican boom elsewhere in the supermarket aisles further reinforced our belief that there was an opportunity for a quality frozen burrito.”

“Also, as we are self-confessed foodies, we were passionate about preparing and cooking quality ingredients, so from the outset anything we were to produce had to satisfy our own exacting standards. So we set out to make the best frozen burritos we could. With the primary goal of creating frozen Mexican food that actually tasted good.”

What is the current product range and variants and how do these products stand out in the market?

“We have four burritos in our range, with our latest arrival Poblano Chilli Pulled Pork released at the start of July. Our other variants are: Smokey Chipotle Shredded Beef, Chilli Lime Chicken and Beans and cheese and our vegetarian burrito. We stand out in the market as we are the only frozen burrito on the market, but also we are an alternative in the snack meal category that is not a pie. Unlike pastry, microwaves do not ruin our tortillas. Our customers tell us that they are amazed that they have come from the freezer. They taste fresh. Our primary focus was, and still is, taste. Customers regularly say at tastings “wow, these actually taste great”. We believe customers say that, as traditionally frozen food is synonymous with poor quality, lack of taste and also very processed.”

“Our burritos are handmade and hand rolled. We use our own cooked from scratch refried beans, which is made from pinto beans, jalapeños, onions and garlic. Our beef is braised in chipotles, prunes, orange juice, lime and our own special spice mix. Our chicken is roasted in chillies, limes, and our own special spice mix. Our Mexican rice is cooked in vegetable stock, onions garlic, cumin and tomatoes. We have tried to make something as close to homemade as viable in a commercial environment.”

Has there been any recent company news?

“We launched our new Poblano Chilli Pulled Pork Burrito at the start of July, about which we have had loads of positive feedback. We have just employed a brand ambassador for Auckland, who you will see out and about in stores doing tastings. We have also entered the NZ Food Awards, so fingers crossed for that.”

“Also we have been working on a number of projects which will mean that our product will be able to be sold in more locations around the country.”

What are the plans for the business moving forward, is there any expansion on the horizon? 

“Absolutely. We have big plans. Nationwide domination first and then looking further afield. Before that though we have many plans for new products, but also we are also looking at other channels.”

Where are your products currently available to buy, and are you looking at or wanting to expand your availability?

“We are available at most North Island and Christchurch New Worlds, Farro Fresh and Moore Wilsons, as well as a range of Countdown, Fresh Choice and Pak ‘N Saves. You’ll find our burritos in the frozen section usually, ideally next to the snack pies and meals.”