Jose Gomez started up Prime Choice Foods after 20 years of working for snack companies. Then he made one of the most important decisions of his life. Now, time is on his side.

By Marina Mayer

Good things come to those who wait, and that’s certainly true for Jose Gomez, who worked in California for nearly two decades in the snack food industry before deciding to go out on his own.

To this day, Jose remembers the moment when he finally put his foot down. He had been on vacation in Europe with his wife when it happened.

     “I turned to her and said, ‘I want to go out and do my own thing,’” he recalls. “And she basically said, ‘Go for it,’ and I did.”

    That decision eventually led to his winning a bid in 2000 on a vacant Terry’s building in Bristol, Va., and soon afterward, Jose opened the doors to Prime Choice Foods. Now more than nine years later, Jose, the company’s president and CEO, has managed to build one of the industry’s up-and-coming producers of organic, all-natural and Kosher-certified corn, baked, tortilla and pita chips and baked tortillas.

    The company has come a long way as the result of a series of acquisitions and growth spurts.

    With the business bursting at the seams in 2006, for instance, Jose and his son, Mauro Gomez, now the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, purchased an eight-acre site with a facility that currently houses 72,000 sq. ft. of warehouse and 6,000 sq. ft. of office space. The warehouse holds product from its 45,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing plant located about 15 miles away.

    More recently, Jose and Mauro last year acquired The Great Western Tortilla Chip Co. in Denver, adding 35,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space and providing an extra outlet for distribution.

With business expanding at a rapid rate, time was of the essence.

    In the midst of its expansion and acquisition, Jose and Mauro upgraded all systems to provide for more automated, flexible, streamlined and operator-friendly plants.

    For example, corn used to be lugged into the plant by hand in 50 lb. sacks. Now the heavy lifting is a memory thanks to the installation of five corn silos and seven bulk oil tanks, two of which contain organic oil and five hold conventional oil.

    Additionally, Prime Choice Foods upgraded its tortilla chip lines and packaging systems.         Specifically, the company went from a system that could package one product at a time, Jose says, to a fully automated operation that can simultaneously package four different products on four baggers.

    The snack producer also brought in a new wastewater system, which captures solid and liquid waste material from the hundreds of thousands of pounds of white, yellow, blue and red corn processed on a weekly basis.

    “In building our corn cooking line,” Jose says, “we also had to agree to more corn cooking and steeping abilities.”

    Next, the plant added an oil rejuvenation system, which pumps used oil into vats and treats them with additive before its cycled through various filters. The purified oil is retested and reused if it passes a quality assurance inspection.

    “[The plant improvements] actually helped us in having more flexibility to offer different product capabilities to our current and potential customers,” Jose says. “Plus, it gives us more flexibility in terms of developing new items.”

    Despite improving plant efficiencies and boosting capacity, production still comes down to quality over quantity. Versatility is almost as important as throughput because the company produces nearly 200 SKUs [stock-keeping units] and thrives on making each and every product the best on the shelf.

    “I think between production output and quality, we really set the mindset over the entire company that quality is No. 1, regardless of production output,” says Sarah Ralston, vice president of technical services. “We can make adjustments internally to handle [production issues], but we’re not going to sacrifice [quality] just to put out a product on the market.”

The Upgraded Layout

The Bristol plant houses two frying lines and the main tortilla chip line while the Denver facility operates two tortilla chip lines and a third tortilla chip line that acts as a backup to the company’s central line in Bristol. Both plants operate three shifts, five days a week, and the operations continuously rotate employees for cross-training purposes.

    In the Bristol plant, corn flows in shoots from the silos at 900 to 1,800 lb. at a time. The quality assurance department conducts a sample testing before sending a shipment of the corn into the plant.

    If approved, the corn enters a seeping tank where it then sits in water for four to eight hours, depending on the climate of the location. Afterward, to produce masa, the corn travels through washers, which rotate and clean the corn by breaking off the skin of the kernel before it is grounded up by lava stones. After sifting through tubes, the masa is pumped and sheeted through rollers.

    After cutting, the corn tortillas enter a three-pass oven, baking from 500 to 700°F for 90 seconds. Oil later seeps into the naked kernel, which then cools on three rotating racks for two to five minutes. Once dried, kernels plop into the fryer for 60 seconds, frying 1,200 to 1,500 lb. of corn kernels per hour. It then enters a second dryer, designed to eliminate heat and water and is specifically used for Kosher-certified products.

    Other snacks follow a similar baking and frying process. To produce pita chips, pita bread bakes at 500 to 700°F for around 1.5 to two minutes in tunnel or three-pass ovens and cools for about two minutes. The pitas then enter a dryer for 60 seconds, allowing for the pillow pockets to form before being cut and seasoned.

    Next, product enters the scales and is weighed, bagged, then ink printed with an expiration date and traceable code. After casepacking, the products immediately are palletized. Overall, the plant ships 10 to 15 trailer loads per day and can store up to two to three weeks of product at one time.

    The Bristol facility also has a room full of several formers in various sizes, already containing film for quick changeover. Two scales and baggers are dedicated to each line, and operators make film changes every 1,000 cases or before, if necessary.

    Prime Choice Foods abides by Kosher and allergen certifications by conducting regular swab tests on the equipment after washdown to ensure that the belt, film and other parts of the line are allergen-free.

    Laboratory technicians also conduct an hourly quality control test that monitors products for masa moisture, oil content, seal detection in packaging, an analysis to measure the amount of oxygen remaining in a bag, a salt and seasoning analysis and a metal detection test.

    Because the plant produces various Kosher and organic products, all raw materials and ingredients are color coded to determine what stage a particular barrel of product is in the production line. For example, yellow buckets indicate the product is in storage, red represents hold as the product is out of spec and under quality assurance review and green means organic.

    Organic ingredients and allergen seasonings are stored in separate rooms within the warehouse and require the use of separate color-coded scoopers. The warehouse also houses salsa from an outside producer and combines it with shipments depending on the customer’s request.

    Furthermore, all of its facilities maintain an above-average score according to audits conducted by AIB International in Manhattan, Kan., and the company is moving towards working with the Global Food Safety Initiative that will be required by many major retailers over the next year.

    “We’re constantly changing to make sure that we keep up with that level of demand that’s out there in the marketplace,” Ralston says.

    In coordination with a consultant, Prime Choice Foods has developed customized software for its MIS system that can locate a product throughout the warehouse. It also can produce code dates or print out pallet plaque stickers that outline product and call information, scannable code numbers, tracking numbers, item codes and product descriptions.

    It also helps organize and streamline the production process according to orders.

    “Let’s say you’re going to produce 1,000 cases. [The system will] convert it to how many raw materials you need, how many boxes, how much film, how much time in manufacturing, if you have any changeover, cleanups or cutters,” Jose says. “It also goes as far as time keeping, such as [when] we’ve produced it, [when] we shipped it, [when] we put it in stock. [It shows] when the product will be ready, when [the company has been] billed and when the bill closed.”

    The biggest advantage to a technologically advanced system, Jose adds, is when dealing with potential recalls. Should a product be recalled, operators can pull up the information on the product in terms of where it was shipped, what truck picked it up, what time and so forth.

    “Technology is a big part of our game plan to keep growing quickly and keep our managers and supervisors well informed,” he explains. “The more we keep our whole group informed, the quicker we can make decisions.”

    Jose may have spent more than 25 years in the industry to get to where he is today, but in the end, it was well worth the wait.


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