Work is never done for the Albuquerque Tortilla Co. as the family-owned business continues to streamline its production of home-style tortillas in its newly expanded facility.

Albuquerque Tortilla Co.’s latest expansion allows the family-owned business to streamline the
production of home-style tortillas and expand its line of authentic New Mexican foods.

By Dan Malovany

No matter what they say, the work is never done.

    That’s the mantra for everyone who has been smitten by the entrepreneurial spirit and whose search for freedom from the corporate rat race has resulted in a lifelong sentence to a labor of love.     It’s the daily predicament that growing small businesses face as they encounter unexpected new opportunities and confront harsh unpredictable challenges in what seems like a never-ending bid for survival.

    It’s also the lesson that Chris Martinez learned from his father, Luther, who founded Albuquerque Tortilla Co. in 1987. One day, just after the company opened, Chris remembers talking to his dad as he painted the windowsills in the company’s nondescript 1,300-sq.-ft. store and asking him what appeared to be an obviously simple question.

    “I knew nothing about this business,” Chris recalls. “I was actually in the medical field. So I asked him, ‘How in the heck are you going to make money selling tortillas?’”

    His father paused to think about it for a while, and then said a word - possibly two - that better be left up to the imagination.

    “We laugh about it 21 years later because it has provided the family with a good living, and we have been pretty big employers in New Mexico over time,” Chris says.

    In the beginning, like many start-up enterprises, the family business struggled just to make ends meet.

    “I remember my dad working 18 hours a day, coming home dead tired and full of grease and burns from the oven,” says Chris, currently vice president of sales and marketing. “We had a very simple 90-degree press that would make two tortillas at a time.”

    Eventually, other family members got involved. Chris’ mother, Rose, is vice president of the company. Rose’s brother, Pete Martinez, would spend the morning producing tortillas that Chris, who left his medical job, would sell in the afternoon and then return to the shop at 3 p.m. to work the night shift in the fledgling operation.

    “We didn’t have a mission statement,” says Pete, now director of operations. “The job was to make it and sell it as fast as we can.”

    For more than two decades, the work has never been done. As sales grew, Pete recalls, so did the operation from the original shop of 7,000 sq. ft. to 20,000 sq. ft. in size. In 2000, the company shifted to a 104,000-sq.-ft. operation, just a 10-minute drive from downtown Albuquerque.

    Finally, Chris thought, the company could take a breather. That lasted until the company’s prepared foods business began to blossom.

    “When we moved into this plant, we thought, ‘This is it. We’re done. We have plenty of room,’” he recalls. “But lo’ and behold, five years later, we were back at the drawing board.”

    Today, in addition to cranking out tens of thousands of tortillas an hour, the U-shaped 189,000-sq.-ft. food processing plant produces dozens of varieties of authentic, individually quick frozen (IQF) New Mexican-style snacks, appetizers and entrees for restaurants, schools and the supermarket freezer case.

    The 85,000-sq.-ft. expansion is a state-of-the-art, U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected facility that houses five lines, including one that makes tamales, another that pumps out burritos, a pouch line for institutional sauces and seasoned meats, a line for rolled taquitos and enchiladas and a tray operation for frozen dinners such as chile rellanos.

    All recipes, Pete says, are developed in-house. That’s why the company’s slogan is “From our kitchen…to your table.”

    “What you can get in a restaurant, you can get here,” Pete says. “We make the products that grandma would serve at dinner.”

All Shapes and Sizes

Overall, the food processing part of the plant operates five days a week while flour tortilla production runs seven days a week. Albuquerque Tortilla Co. also produces white, yellow and blue corn tortillas, as well as unfried corn tortilla chips, salsas, spices and New Mexico’s signature red and green chile sauce.

    In the flour tortilla production department, four lines turn out 5,850 dozen an hour, depending on the size of the tortilla. A larger, new line, installed about a year ago, can crank 1,140 dozen an hour. For the retail market, the company sells everything from 6-in. flour gorditas to 9.5-in. burrito-sized ones. For foodservice, the plant also makes 10-in. and 12-in. wraps.

    Albuquerque Tortilla Co. specifically installed the new larger line to produce a more consistent foodservice wrap. The line’s larger press and its rocker arms, Pete notes, move more evenly than the older lines and allow the plant to create a more consistent product with less heat and pressure.

    Flour is stored in five, 50,000-sq.-ft. enclosed silos adjacent to the production area. For the double lines, flour is pumped into two, 300-lb. sifters and into one of five spiral mixer bowls, which feed each divider with five to six 300-lb. batches an hour, again depending on the size of the tortilla.     A separate room with three more mixers is dedicated to the larger new flour tortilla line.

    “We limit the batches because you get more uniform products with smaller batches,” Pete says. “When you get over 1,000-lb. batches, the recipe doesn’t always transfer right through the oven.”

    Unlike most bakeries and tortilla manufacturers, the hopper on each divider is outfitted with a metal lid that opens when the mixer bowl is elevated and gets ready to dump dough into the system.

    “When I first started, I told them I wanted a cover on it for food safety reasons and product quality,” Pete explains. “They had never heard of anyone asking for that before. I told them if the dough gets exposed to air and flows over, the crust cannot be rehydrated and we have to toss it away.”

    After dividing and rounding, the dough balls travel through an intermediate proofer for 15 minutes, which allows the pieces to relax and become more elastic. The dough balls then are hot pressed and baked in a 20-ft., three-pass oven for about two minutes. Albuquerque Tortilla Co. bakes them longer because its New Mexican-style flour tortillas are about 30% thicker than conventional ones and are branded with distinctive toast marks that give the products their unique character.

    As they exit the oven, the tortillas then spend about 2.5 minutes in a refrigerated cooler where the circulating air set at 45°F helps eliminate sticking during packaging. The products subsequently head into a counter-stacker to a bagger, twist tyer, code date system and metal detector before they’re manually placed in bread baskets.

Although many bakeries and tortilla producers ship their products in baskets, Albuquerque Tortilla Co. takes an extra step and places the packaged tortilla in cardboard cases, even for locally delivered items. Eight family packs, for instance, fits into each case.

“It costs more,” Pete says, “but we don’t have to worry about baskets being broken or stolen.”

After casepacking, the products are palletized and automatically shrinkwrapped before heading to the shipping department.

“Everything we produce today goes out tonight and is in stores tomorrow,” Pete says.

A separate room houses corn tortilla and uncut tortilla chip production. Albuquerque Tortilla Co. cooks its own corn, which then is stone ground and mixed in 150-lb. batches in a horizontal mixer. The company is setting up a new system with two, 400-gallon steam cookers, which will provide continuous corn production, 24 hours a day, Pete says.

Production is done on two double and two quad lines. The double lines produce 1,250 dozen corn tortillas an hour while the quads, or four-row lines, make 2,500 dozen an hour. The most popular seller is the 90-count, 6-in. corn tortilla followed by a 36-count package. The process is straightforward, with the masa being hot pressed before the tortillas are baked in a three-pass oven followed by cooling and packaging.

For unfried tortilla chips, Albuquerque Tortilla Co. uses a firmer, more porous tortilla that lets the steam out to produce crispier, restaurant chips when they’re fried in restaurant kitchens like French fries and served hot to customers with a side of salsa.

Stacks of unpackaged corn tortillas are wheeled from the corn tortilla production department into an adjacent room where a single operator places a stack of around 100 tortillas under a four-chip cutter and presses down to slice them. The triangular pieces tumble into a separator drum before they travel down a short conveyor and are dumped into a plastic lined box.

Working on Efficiencies

With the new USDA-inspected plant online, Albuquerque Tortilla Co. now is focusing on boosting sales of its frozen prepared foods. Currently, the products are sold throughout the Southwest, but it has some shotgun distribution as far away as Woodbury, N.Y.

    For the near future, Chris notes, new product development remains a priority for fueling sales. The new food processing plant, he adds, was designed with versatility in mind.

    “In foodservice, we will be able to manufacture our recipes for broad line distribution as well as for custom recipe requests,” he says. “We are not limited to manufacturing only Hispanic foods, but that will remain our main focus.”

    From a production standpoint, he notes, the continued emphasis is on enhancing plant efficiencies such as tweaking divider speeds so that Albuquerque Tortilla Co. can increase its throughput while maintaining product quality and consistency. Additionally, the company is exploring the use of robotics in the packaging area and possibly replacing some of its older flour tortilla lines with newer ones outfitted with technology that provides not only increased capacity but also greater production flexibility.

    “When I first started, we were getting about four hours of sleep each night, but look at where we are today,” Chris says. “We have new challenges, but they are for the better.”

    Yes, the work is never done, but it does pay off in the long run.