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La Bonita Olé, a Tampa-based tortilla company, hopes Internet will help in bankruptcy fight

TAMPA — In the strip of drab industrial buildings, there's one that pops with its purple roofs.

Inside, it smells like tortillas. Corn. Flour. Spinach.

The 32 varieties move nonstop through the stacker, then the bagger. Sherin Lucas tosses out the rejects with holes or folds. She listens to the stereo. Rock. Jazz. Sometimes Latin.

She loves the fast pace. "I don't have time to get bored."

But having downtime is the least of her concerns these days. The tortilla company, La Bonita Olé, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year. Now president and CEO Tammy Young has waged a cyber fight, hoping to continue managing the East Tampa company with 40 employees.

Young launched a social media campaign, SaveTheTortillas.com, a week ago with links to several social networking Web sites, including Facebook. More than 200 fans follow the campaign on Twitter.

She owes SunTrust Bank $3 million. She's still paying on the debt, but filing bankruptcy put her at risk of losing the company. Now, SunTrust wants to sell her business to new management, according to court documents. Young says she will lose 17 years of investment.

She wants people to sign a petition on her Web site, hoping to persuade creditors and bankers to let her maintain the company.

"The most effective advertisement is word of mouth," Young said. "I mean, it can just spread like wildfire."

Early this week, about 500 had signed the online petition. More than half of those came before the online launch. Young will show the public's support and signatures to creditors and SunTrust during a July 10 hearing when she and the bank present plans for the company's future.

Social media strategist Julia Gorzka met with Young and tried the tortillas.

Best ever, Gorzka said.

Young hired her to create the online campaign with a team.

"No one's ever done this before," she said. "Do we think it'll work? We won't know until the day in court."

A final judgment will be made Aug. 19.

SunTrust executives aren't a fan of the site. Last week, they filed for an emergency hearing to block the campaign. Court documents show the bank was uneasy with "misstatements of facts and law" in online social media regarding the bankruptcy case.

Judge Michael G. Williamson ruled Monday that La Bonita Olé must remove some information, said Chuck Kilcoyne, deputy in charge for the Tampa division of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Middle District of Florida. La Bonita was ordered to remove language that said Young has until August to save 40 jobs. SunTrust has not said in documents whether all employees would be fired if the company is sold, Young said. SunTrust contended in court documents that the online information was misleading.

Despite the wording changes, SaveTheTortillas.com can stay.

Lynn Welter Sherman, an attorney for SunTrust, declined to comment on the case, and calls to other SunTrust Bank representatives were not returned by press time early this week.

La Bonita Olé started in 1992 with $13,000 and a home office. Soon, Young's brother and sister joined the company and, in 2007, they moved to their current 32,000-square-foot manufacturing facility at 5804 E Columbus Drive. It's now a $12 million company supplying more than 20 food retailers in 28 states east of the Mississippi River.

The family didn't grow up eating tortillas, but a Mexican friend did. Young, a Kentucky native, was convinced she could sell his tortilla recipe.

"We grew up with biscuits and gravy," said Martha Martin, Young's sister and company accountant and administrator.

On a recent day, Martin thought of the possibility of losing the company as she stacked tortillas into the machine that makes them chips. She shook her head, then cried a bit.

"That's Martha," said employee Tina Frizzell.

Martin moved to Florida more than 10 years ago to join her older sister's company.

"It's the closest thing she has to children," she said of Young. "It's her baby."

Workers say they are a family. When an employee's home burned down, they donated clothes and furniture. They know whose mom is sick. They know how to make each other smile.

Young has been open about the company's plight, so employees are doing what they can.

Each chance they get, they tell people to get online.

Ileana Morales can be reached at imorales@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

La Bonita Olé, a Tampa-based tortilla company, hopes Internet will help in bankruptcy fight 07/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 2, 2009 9:18am]
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