Tyson’s Mexican Original emerged as second-largest leading tortilla producer, thanks to some creative moves, strategic planning and a laser-like emphasis on the fundamentals.

By Marina Mayer

Ever since Tyson Foods purchased Mexican Original in 1983, it’s relied on a combination of timely offense and a sturdy defense to transform the Springdale, Ark.-based division of Tyson Foods into the No. 2 player in the tortilla industry.

Over the years, the company has managed to expand by barreling through the line of scrimmage just by focusing on the fundamentals of blocking and tackling against the competition.

Today, the company spans out over three strategically located facilities in Fayetteville, Ark.; Sanford, N.C.; and Portland, Ind., that together pump out nearly 7 to 9 million lb. of tortillas per week. Those products include a lineup of items that range from press and die-cut flour tortillas and corn tortillas to flavored wraps, pre-cut yellow and white corn tortilla chips, pre-fried tortilla chips, taco and tostada shells and flatbread.

Snack Food & Wholesale Bakerywas invited to tour the 230,000-sq.-ft., U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified Fayetteville facility, which is home to 640 employees and produces heat-pressed and die-cut tortillas and chips.

However, what separates this complex of operations from the others in the industry is that it continually invests to be the best.

“We have probably seven or eight generations of equipment in the facility because every year or so they upgrade and enlarge and we replace equipment or add equipment,” says Wayne Beach, senior director of sales and marketing for Tyson’s Mexican Original, the foodservice division of Tyson Foods, Inc., and chairman of the Tortilla Industry Association.

The Fayetteville plant houses 22 production lines in which all but two of them run 24 hours a day.
“We have one of the first mega-press lines still in operation on the south side [of the facility],” says Richard Irvin, Fayetteville complex manager. “And then on the north side, we have newer lines that are the latest generation press lines.”

The newer production lines rely on PLCs, vision systems, analytical equipment and texture analyzers designed to check and improve the quality of the products.

“Every time you add another piece of equipment, you’ve got to have people to maintain it, run it and gather data. You also have to have people who know how to analyze it,” Irvin says.

Overall, the facility has five, 100,000-lb. flour silos, three, 50,000-lb. corn silos and four, 40,000-lb. tanks for shortening.

For ingredient handling, Tyson’s Mexican Original operates under a regimented raw material process for these bulk items, which must undergo a certificate analysis and be pre-approved before entering the facility to ensure quality, consistency, food safety and food security.

Systematic Approach
Just like any successful team, Tyson’s Mexican Original continuously formulates a strategic game plan, or in this case, a systematic approach to running an operation that’s designed with efficiency and uniformity in mind.

At the Fayetteville facility, corn is brought up to a specified temperature in steam-injected cook vessels. The corn is then steeped for a specified time before entering a corn washer, which removes pericarp, the outer part of the shell. Then the corn is conveyed into a grinder that transforms it into masa.

Next, the masa is delivered to a sheeter head, which cuts it into pre-determined sizes and shapes. The product then flows to the oven, is cooled and then packaged.

For flour tortilla production, common ingredients are stored in an automated micro-minor system, then weighed and conveyed into mix stations where it is combined with flour and water.

After mixing, the dough enters a divider/rounder and then a proofing cabinet. The dough balls are positioned on belts and conveyed into the press area. There, the tortillas are subsequently baked, cooled and packaged.

Next, for quality control the tortillas enter a check weigher, then pass under a vision system that inspects them for shape, weight, color, texture and more. Vision systems are located at each line and reject defects. Meanwhile, tortillas are counted and stacked for presentation to the automatic packaging system.
For convenience and quality control, foodservice accounts prefer resealable bags, Beach says. There are typically one to two dozen tortillas in each package.

Then, the packages of tortillas are manually casepacked and palletized.

Maintenance is conducted every week when lines are scheduled down. Safety mandates include lock-out/tag-out, as well as confined space entry and fall protection, which teaches employees how to properly climb up and down equipment.

The 50,000-sq.-ft. warehouse has 600 bays and 900 pallet spaces in each section. Half of the warehouse is set at refrigeration temperature and the remainder is set at frozen.

There are six loading docks that cater to roughly 50 trucks a day. Most of those tractor trailers are customer pickups or distributed through Tyson’s route system.

For quality assurance, team members take samples from the line and prepare them as they would be used in restaurants. They not only test for quality and texture, but also for color, pliability and strength.

Because Tyson’s Mexican Original targets national foodservice accounts, the plant is audited every week, Irvin says. Additionally, the plant recently received its certification from the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

“If you look at Tyson overall and consider the diversity of product portfolio and how diverse components are, they allow the business entity to really be the expert and to have a lot of input into selection of prime vendors,” Beach says. “From a corporate standpoint, they’re not interested in being the expert for the commodity. They rely on the business to be the expert for the commodity and then leverage the purchase power across potential common vendors or related vendors.”

In addition, each facility has its own Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) coordinator while food safety teams meet once a month to discuss any food-related issues or industry trends.

“We haven’t had to make any changes [to select supplier programs or purchasing]. We have a pretty good program,” Irvin says. “That’s one of the things about being Tyson Foods. With all the plants that we have, we’ll set up an internal advisory panel between materials managers at the plants, and we’ll select suppliers with that group. We may have a subject-matter expert that’s familiar with it, and the plant purchasing person will be involved and then they’ll go out and select primary vendors for ingredients and packaging.”

Training Camp
The plant houses four training rooms, complete with an online program and a meeting room. In the red-and-white- painted Razorback Room, named in honor of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, supervisors and team leaders on each line meet at the end of every eight-hour shift to discuss action items such as charts, efficiency and maintenance spending, and to formulate new goals.

“We’ve got excellent training in place,” Irvin says. “Whether you’re talking about maintenance or the hourly team members, one of the unique things we have from a training perspective is the Alchemy system.”

For example, some of the training involves leadership development and employment compliance, he adds.

Additional supervisory training may include outside subject-matter experts who offer training sessions and hands-on field advice.

“I’m not aware of any other tortilla company that has developed such in-depth training for their operations staff,” Beach says.

Plus, the Tyson’s Mexican Original’s senior leadership team comprises of more than 80 years experience together, most of it in the tortilla industry.

With this team of veterans, there’s no doubt that Tyson’s Mexican Original will remain focused on core products and competencies with a desire to continue as an industry leader.