08/02/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
Sid Martinez thought he'd had his eureka moment a decade ago when he invented the Tie Guard, a paper napkin shaped like a necktie, to protect sloppy diners from spills. Sadly, that brainstorm went nowhere. Then, one night in 1994, the former San Antonio police officer dined at a Chinese restaurant and focused on the fortune cookies. Back home, he dipped one in water, zapped it in the microwave to soften it, folded the circular dough in half, and suddenly realized he could create a new treat: the Mexican fortune cookie. "I knew right then and there," says Martinez, "there was a market for this."
¡Claro que sí! Martinez is shipping some 4,000 cases a month—1.4 million cookies—to restaurants and schools in 38 states. Named Takitos—for little tacos—each cinnamon-flavored cookie contains a proverb, known in Spanish as a dicho, in both Spanish and English. (Example: Saber es poder; knowledge is power.) Ricardo Ruiz Jr., who runs a Cha-Cha's restaurant in San Antonio, says he was skeptical at first, but now his diners are often happy to top off a meal of enchiladas or tostadas with Takitos. Says Ruiz: "It sends them off with a laugh and a smile."
Which has put Martinez, 56, in a good mood too. He was out of work and nearly broke when in 1995 he launched the Takito business. At first he traveled to mom-and-pop Mexican eateries across the country, and now he focuses on the big Mexican chains, working 15-hour days from his spacious three-bedroom home in San Antonio's Oak Hills section. Still, he keeps dreaming. His latest: a cone-shaped tortilla he dubbed the Tacono. Filled with meat and vegetables, it becomes a sort of leak-resistant handheld fajita. One advantage: You don't need a Tie Guard.