Made In America
By Deborah Cassell
Flour tortillas have come a long way since 1958, when Los-Angeles-based manufacturer La Reina got its start. Today, white, whole wheat, whole grain, multigrain, organic and all-natural varieties of the popular flatbread are transforming this American-made product into a household and foodservice staple.
Tortillas aren’t native to America … and neither is Mauro Robles, founder and CEO of Commerce, Calif.-based tortilla manufacturer La Reina. But both found a home here in the United States back in the ‘50s, when American consumers were first introduced to Mexican foods, as well as the now ubiquitous burrito.
Mauro came to this country from Mexico as a young man under President Roosevelt’s Bracero (Spanish for Laborer) program, which enabled immigrants to find jobs on our side of the border. Although he originally worked at American railroad yards, Mauro had aspirations of owning his own business. He even had the name picked out: La Reina, Spanish for The Queen.
On May 4, 1958, Mauro realized his dream when he began producing corn and flour tortillas for local mom and pop restaurants.
Today, La Reina specializes in flour tortillas … but that’s an understatement. The company offers not only a wide variety of flavors — from jalapeño white Cheddar to sun-dried tomato — but an extensive array of sizes for all applications. Customers can choose from white, whole wheat, whole grain, multigrain, all natural and organic products in sizes ranging from 4.5 in. to 16 in. — the latter of which is ideal for what consumers and foodservice operators commonly call “wraps.”
“As a dedicated private label and co-pack company, we need to have the ability to generate custom formulations, so we consider that a core competency,” says Bill Stewart, vice president of sales and marketing.
For the last few months, La Reina has been focused on developing an all-natural, clean-label tortilla, which could revolutionize the industry.
“We’ve certainly seen that consumers — and we hear it from our large customers — want to see ingredients like they have in their own pantry, and they don’t want to see ingredients they can’t pronounce or ingredients that can look like a chemistry set,” Stewart says.
Of course, the same consumers who want to eat healthy don’t want to sacrifice taste or texture. Taking this into account, La Reina has created a product that satisfies those dual demands.
“I’m really happy with what we’ve done to address that issue in terms of delivering both the ingredient and nutritional profile we wanted in what I think is a really good-tasting tortilla,” Stewart says. “We think this is going to be one our competitive advantages and areas for growth.”
And La Reina certainly knows a lot about growth. Just ask Mauro Robles … or his son Ricardo, who now helps run the company.
Save The Date
For the Robles family, May 4, 1958, is a day to remember.
“That date is imbedded in all of my siblings’ heads and brains,” says Mauro’s son, company president Ricardo Robles. After all, it was on this day that his father started La Reina, a manufacturer that would soon fill an empty niche in the American food market, where tortillas were, at the time, practically non-existent.
“The operation was very, very small,” Ricardo explains. In fact, at the start, Mauro had just one corn line and one flour line.
“But he wanted to focus on flour,” Ricardo says. “Unlike Mexico, where the staple is corn, he recognized that all of us here were used to eating wheat-based products.”
In fact, the only area of Mexico producing flour tortillas was the northern state of Sonora, which shared a border with the United States and thus had access to the white flour that it incorporated into its recipes.
Although the growing Mexican-American population still prefers corn-based tortillas, most U.S. consumers continue to favor flour. However, many Americans also have grown to enjoy other Mexican foods, such as those offered by La Reina’s sister companies.
La Reina is one of four companies under the La Reina Family Brands umbrella. Its sister companies are Anita’s, a producer of organic corn-based snacks and shells; Sierra Madre, a prepared foods manufacturer whose offerings include tamales, burritos, taquitos, chimichangas and enchiladas; and La Tolteca, which manufactures and distributes tortillas and chips in the Tri-County area surrounding Santa Barbara, Calif. All four facilities are located in The Golden State.
“The nice thing is, while La Reina is a tortilla company, we have the scale or leverage, if you will, of a company roughly three times bigger, which helps with procurement and some other efficiencies,” Stewart says.
Efficiency is of utmost importance to La Reina, especially in light of rising energy and commodity costs. The manufacturer runs two shifts at its East Los Angeles plant, neither of which occurs during primary energy usage hours.
“We’re producing late afternoon, evening and then through the morning just before noon,” Stewart says. “That actually helps in two areas: the obvious, trying to reduce our energy costs, but also, it’s much easier for our employees to work at these non-peak hours. When you’ve got 15 tortilla ovens on, it can get pretty hot.
“One of the reasons we think this is so important is the tremendous pressure that the whole food industry is feeling from energy cost increases, commodity cost increases, like the cost of flour, and packaging cost increases driven by the energy side,” Stewart continues. “We have to continue to become more efficient.”
Other efficiencies La Reina recently has improved upon include its machinery.
“We’ve had some investment in automation, in terms of specific equipment and help with our efficiencies: bagging system, cooling system, upgrading our bag-sealing equipment,” Stewart says.
Ricardo adds, “We are refocusing on the product as it leaves the oven.”
All of these innovations contribute to La Reina’s goals as a private label and co-pack producer for what it calls “world-class” companies.”
“Many times, people will come to us with a specific idea that we could fully develop into a product,” Ricardo explains.
In addition, many of La Reina’s customers share with the company their insights on what’s happening in the marketplace.
“They tend to be quite innovative and ahead of the curve, seeing trends and translating those into a request to us,” Stewart says. “So it would be our expertise in delivering it, but their direction in terms of ‘I want it low-fat, low-sodium, whole grain’ — whatever the nutritional profile they want is.
“In terms of prototype development,” Stewart adds, “we’ve got some expert palates here, including Ricardo’s. The folks around the table here can look at it (product) both from a taste profile and also our ability to replicate.”
Replicating a product that you can make in a lab in an ongoing batch is always a challenge, Stewart says. But it’s one that La Reina continues to meet, time and again, for customers small, medium and large.
In the future, La Reina sees more opportunities to align itself with traditional grocery/private label businesses. It also plans to work even closer with customers to create more innovative products.
“We’re going to see much more regionalization of what we’re now kind of proudly calling Mexican foods,” Stewart says. For example, different regions of Mexico and Central America prefer diverse flavor profiles. “I see us being able to specifically develop more products that are focused in on specific segments of the Latino population,” he adds.
Now that the United States has embraced the tortilla, other countries are following suit. For example, La Reina’s products are distributed everywhere from near-north neighbor Canada to nations on the other side of the world, including New Zealand, Australia, Korea, Taiwan and Japan, where “Made in America” is an unlikely label … but a proud one. TIA
Workers at La Reina’s East Los Angeles, Calif., plant, are simply an extension of the Robles family.
In fact, many of La Reina’s older employees like to share food with company president Ricardo Robles.
“They’ll come up and say, ‘Señor Ricardo, I made this for you,’” he says. “And it’s usually a big casserole … enough to feed everybody here in the office. There are a few ladies in the back that I can’t walk by without getting not just a greeting, but a hug.
“And I give them a big ol’ hug,” Ricardo adds, laughing. “And I like it, too. They’re good people.”
At A Glance
Company: La Reina Family Brands
Headquarters: Los Angeles
Plants: La Reina, Los Angeles, Calif.; Anita’s, San Bernardino, Calif.; La Tolteca, Santa Barbara, Calif.; Sierra Madre Foods, Monterrey Park, Calif.
Annual Sales: $42 million
Products: Corn and flour tortillas; fried, baked and pre-cut tortilla chips; frozen burritos, chimichangas, taquitos, tamales, enchiladas and dinner entrees; spices.
Distribution: Private label and co-pack
CEO: Mauro Robles
President, La Reina: Ricardo Robles
President, Anita’s Mexican Foods & Sierra Madre Foods: Rene Robles
V.P. Sales & Marketing: Bill Stewart
Business Development: Jackie Monk