DON'T be surprised if, someday soon, following a meal at a Mexican restaurant, the server brings what looks like a taco-shaped fortune cookie with your check. Crack open the cinnamon-scented wafer and you'll find a slip of paper printed in English on one side and Spanish on the other with a Mexican saying, or dicho. Example: La lengua del mal amigo, más corta que un cuchillo. (The tongue of a bad friend cuts more than a knife.)
Dichos, as the cookies are called, have been appearing at restaurants -- Mexican and others -- in southern Arizona in a haphazard pattern in which word-of-mouth has far outpaced formal distribution. Raul and Marina Montaño, the Douglas, Ariz., couple who came up with the idea after a Chinese meal in March 2007, have been fielding calls for their product since they opened for business just over four months ago.
Orders and inquiries have come from throughout the Southwest and, increasingly, elsewhere in the country. A jazzy binational (Mexico/U.S.) bilingual experimental performance group took some on tour to hand out at shows in Texas, the Pacific Northwest, New York and Canada, to enthusiastic response. And last month, the head of Product Development International, an East Los Angeles-based food brokerage, drove the 600 miles to Douglas to see the Dicho operation firsthand. The parties established an agreement to bring the product to cafes, restaurants and supermarket delis in California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona.
The Montaños, high school sweethearts, have converted rented space a few blocks north of Mexico (coincidentally, a former Chinese restaurant) into a cookie factory. Not far away is Border Mart, Raul's convenience store, taco stand and gas station that fronts Pan American Avenue. It is the first business a traveler sees upon entering the United States from Agua Prieta, Mexico, and the last one to wave goodbye to before heading south from Douglas.
Until recently Raul sat on the Arizona Governor's Council on Small Business and for years was active in the local Chamber of Commerce. He adds to college scholarships won by employees. He's known around town as a go-getter, a smart businessman always looking ahead. Initially trained as a diesel mechanic out of high school, Raul pushed carts for Safeway, then rose to assistant manager at the local Wal-Mart. When Wal-Mart invited him to run stores in Mexico, with increased responsibility and pay, Montaño elected to stay in Douglas. He's a hometown kind of guy.
The couple, now in their early 40s, live next door to Marina's parents in Pirtleville, a small community just west of Douglas, where they are raising three children. That's where they developed the Dicho recipe, testing it on anyone who dropped by. "My Mom and Dad tried them," says Marina, "and friends came over and gave us feedback."
Marina, whose associate of arts degree comes from nearby Cochise College, worked in a local photography studio for many years, restoring and retouching old pictures. Today she juggles Dicho office chores -- orders, accounts, bills, paperwork, and payroll of some 14 part- and full-time employees -- while Raul oversees the factory operations, calibrating ingredients, machinery, production, packing and shipping. The couple have lived up to one of their first dichos: Cada quien construye su propio destino. (Everyone creates his own destiny.)
For the first burst of production, the Montaños have selected 100 dichos suggested by friends, relatives, restaurant customers, from books of Mexican folklore, and, increasingly, sayings that have been e-mailed to them by strangers. Marina, who maintains a waiting list for the next round of sayings, has her mother check the Spanish and its translation into English.
What strikes a visitor most on entering the 2,500-square-foot building that houses the Dicho operation is the Rube Goldberg machinery that manufactures each Dicho: gears, levers, pumps, pipes, metal bars and other apparatus all functioning in sync.
The process starts with ingredients blended together in an oversized Hobart mixer more than 4 feet tall. The batter then goes to machines where it's mechanically ladled into small cupcake-wide molds one at a time. Forty-eight molds are evenly spaced along the outer perimeter of a huge metal disc, much as a pearl necklace laid flat on a massive circular device.
Creating the shells
THE DISC moves slowly into the oven to bake each shell. When the molds emerge on the other end of the machine, each shell is lifted out of its mold and, as it's crimped in half, an arm simultaneously inserts an individual bilingual dicho.
It's wonderfully confusing to scrutinize and entirely mesmerizing to watch, reminiscent of the assembly line that produced chocolate bonbons in a famous "I Love Lucy" episode.
Raul Montaño traveled twice to Boston to work with the machine's designer. On his second trip, he brought along his technically minded father-in-law to inspect and approve the machinery. "It's like a car," Montaño says. "It'll last you forever if you maintain it."
Something occurred to the Montaños after they had invested heavily in the Dicho concept: What if a patent or trademark established by others predated their confection?
Por pedir, nada se pierde. (You lose nothing by asking.) After considerable research, a patent attorney gave them the go-ahead and established the brand name; they were in the clear. Él que llega primero, muele primero. (Who arrives first, grinds first.)
As first-time food producers, the Montaños had a lot to learn. They hired a nutritional scientist to establish the nutrition facts to be printed on the side of each box. They researched "food grade paper," required by the Food and Drug Administration for products of this nature.
Finally, they tested different strengths of plastic before coming up with the right wrapping grade.
The performance group that took the cookies on the road, Verbobala Spoken Video, reported that in such places as Boston or Vancouver, Canada, they had to explain what dichos were. "But when we started to explain them in San Antonio or Austin," says group member Logan Phillips, "people would interrupt us - 'Yeah, yeah, we know.' They'd immediately got the idea."
As for Freddy Monares, the East L.A. food broker bringing Dichos near you soon, he relates personally. "Every person you talk to has at least a hundred dichos in their life," he says with some whimsy.
"Right now [the Montaños] are selling 200 cases a month. My initial goal is for them to sell 2,000 a month. They'll be baby-sat by me to make it grow. At a certain point dichos will be hard to stop."