Don Pancho East, Halifax, N.C., is brimming with a high-energy staff and high-tech tortilla production on four new lines that can each output as much as 60,000 tortillas per hour.

Lauren R. Hartman, Editor-in-Chief

Designed by the company’s tortilleros, or master tortilla makers, Don Pancho Authentic Mexican Foods’ 85,000-sq.-ft., multimillion-dollar production plant in Halifax, N.C., or Don Pancho East as it is called by company employees, is based on the successes and experiences of the other Don Pancho tortilla manufacturing facilities. Don Pancho East now houses four main tortilla lines that are separated into two sides of the facility: A flour side; and a corn side.

“We built this plant from scratch,” explains Ricardo Baez, company president. “It was an empty lot a few years ago,” he says. “We built it based on the plant in Salem, Ore. and it improves upon the layout there. We gained a lot of great experience and put that into this facility. Production now has a better flow. I’d say that’s been our No. 1 change in the way we do things. We take into account the dimensions of our equipment, how the lines flow from front to back and how the product moves into packaging and into our warehouse.”

Able to produce as many as 60,000 tortillas an hour and 61 million lb. of corn and flour tortillas per year-up 100% from its initial estimates-the Halifax operation runs 24 hours a day, five days a week, with sanitation, as does the other Don Pancho facilities. Orders are filled on a just-in-time basis to ensure that customers are getting the freshest product possible. “That’s the kind of volume we have, and that also factors into how we design and build our plants,” Baez says. “Everything is made fresh for distribution. Freshness is a critical aspect of the business.”

“We make and ship everything to order,” says Mark Haig, category manager for the Eastern division. “We put everything into our finished goods warehouse and transferred it out right away.”

Product shelf life depends on the product and customer requests, but range from 10 days to 45 and 60 days, shelf-stable.  “We want to create a national freshness,” Baez smiles, hinting at what could be the company’s national ad slogan. Most of Don Pancho’s 400 stock-keeping units (SKUs), including gluten-free tortillas, are made in Halifax.

“The plant is HACCP-certified (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) annually,” adds plant manager Steve Snyder. “We have internal meetings once a month to keep us up to standard. All of our incoming raw materials that are allergens are stored in a segregated area in an ingredients storage warehouse, and are also segregated in production. We currently have two 80,000-lb. bulk wheat flour storage silos, but may soon have to acquire another one.”

Since Snack Food &Wholesale Bakery last visited Don Pancho East, the company has installed two more chiller chambers on the lines in its flour tortilla production room. All of the lines are programmable-logic-controlled (PLC). In place following the huge multipass, straightline ovens on each line, the temperature-controlled chambers bring the flour tortillas down to a cooler at a more manageable temperature after baking so that they can be stacked and packaged. “We integrated the cooling chambers to minimize any variables associated with the tortillas before they’re packaged,” says Haig.

Environmentally friendly

Sparkling with new shining stainless-steel equipment and floors, the immaculate facility is equally environmentally friendly, incorporating various energy-saving and recycling capabilities, including contained oven-heating discharges, sensor-activated lighting and materials recycling, thanks to a neighboring materials recycler. “We bring all of our recyclable plastic and paperboard materials to the recycling company right behind this building, and they handle it,” Snyder points out, proudly. “Any extra tortilla waste goes into a trailer that’s shipped up the road to be recycled as chicken feed. We have very little waste.”

On the day of Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s visit, the facility was shelling out 10-in. flour tortillas for foodservice and 6-in. white (table) corn tortillas for retail sales that are packed into 18-count bags and yellow corn tortilla “thins” that are later made into thin, fried chips. This line can generate about 5,000 dozen tortillas an hour. The other corn line ran 12-packs of corn tortillas that eventually were packed into 160-count shipments for foodservice distribution.

“We make table corn on one of the two corn lines,” explains Haig. “Table corn is thicker and has more moisture in it. We have a four-row corn line (which makes four tortillas across) and a six-row corn line, on which we make chips. We store corn and flour tortilla products and the raw ingredients for them in completely separate rooms. We have an allergen segregation program.”

Fine-tuned for efficiency

In the corn room, the required amount of ingredients is added automatically to the mixers at the front of the two tortilla lines via PLC.  There are various ways operators can deliver the corn masa to the lines. Today, flour is added by the 50-lb. bag. “We’re working with different corn masas, but preservatives and other ingredients are metered into the mix automatically,” Snyder points out. Batches range in size from 200-300 lb.

The bags of masa are dumped into a hopper of a system that uses paddles to work the dough. “All of the flour goes through a metal detector/magnet to make sure it’s free of contaminants,” Snyder adds. Water, preservatives and other ingredients are automatically premetered into the system. The dough is then dumped into a presheeter, where it is thinned to specifications of about ¼ in. thick. Next, it moves into a sheeter, where it is thinned yet again to further specifications.

There’s some fine tuning that takes place at the presheeting/sheeting station in order to achieve the proper thickness of the corn tortilla chip, thanks to the bulk cutters used, Haig notes. When the dough collects on the sheeter head, a cutter runs across the back side and cuts the shapes of the tortilla out of the sheet.

“This presheeting/sheeting system is state-of-the-art” observes Haig. “The old way of sheeting was with a masa feeder and an auger. A vertical auger would then force the mix into flutes that would lead it to a sheeter head. The masa dough is a dry dough, so it can put tremendous stress on an auger and wear it out. The presheeter saves us so much downtime and really increases throughput. It also makes us better operators, and we don’t put so much stress on the product and we get a more efficient flow.”

As a white roller cuts the tortillas, the round tortillas emerge on the conveyor, four across, and progress toward the oven, which has a 34-sec. dwell time and is 20 ft. long. Scraps are filtered back into the mixing system to be reused.

 “The tortillas move at about 1,000 per minute here,” Snyder says. The three-stage multizone straightline oven bakes the tortillas for 32-34 sec. at 450-600°F, depending on the zone. “The ovens are conveyorized inside, so the tortillas make three passes on the conveyor belt,” Haig explains. “The corn tortillas run at very high temperatures, and we need the oven to be long so actually instead of 20 ft., it’s like we have 60 ft. of cooking space inside with the three passes,” he says. “The tortillas pass through it three times and we do the same thing in the cooling process.” Once baked, the tortillas exit the oven and progress to a new seven-pass (multilane) cooling conveyor chamber. In about 4.5 min., the tortillas are brought down to an ambient temperature and are ready for stacking. They transfer onto a belt where they’re automatically counted and stacked into retail packs (18 count).

The stacks of corn tortillas are then bagged in printed clear film bags with zippered closures, heat-sealed and transferred to a metal detector and ink-jet coder that applies production information and a date code. The bags are then case-packed and the cases are imprinted with production information and product identification, tape-sealed and palletized.

The flour side 

In the flour tortilla room, similar production line processes occur, with a few exceptions. Unlike the corn lines, the flour lines are equipped with proofers. Flour is pumped into the storage hoppers near the mixing area from a pair of silos in back of the plant that each hold 80,000 lb. The flour is weighed and added to the mixer, which uses a counter-rotation method to make dough with a perfect consistency. The mega tortilla line measures 130 ft. long, and is capable of producing four tortillas across at rates of about 29,000-30,000 tortillas an hour.

“Actually, what we have on the flour lines are not mixers but more of a kneader,” Haig explains. “There are rollers that manipulate the dough instead of mixing it, and it can be mixed in the dough cart, which removes a step. On top of that, the cart locks into the meter system and the counter-rotation of the rollers against each other increases the action or kneading of the dough. This helps develop the dough faster. So instead of mixing for 12 min. the old way, this line is able to make a 300-lb. batch in seven min.”

One of the flour lines was working with 200- to 300-lb. batches. The mixed dough travels into a ball mixer, up an elevator and is dumped into a hopper. The dough then heads to a rounder where dough balls form using an oscillating drum. The balls go up an elevator and move into the proofer. As the dough balls are made, they drop through four long cylinders into a proofing system where they remain for about 7-8 min. at 70-80°F.

After proofing, the dough enters a presser while a PLC monitors conveyor belt speed and the press station. The tortillas are pressed into a flat 8-in. size, and next enter a four-up, conveyorized three-pass straightline oven to bake at 450-550°F for 26-30 sec.

“There are particular toast points required for the flour tortillas, and the different temperature zones in the oven provide that carmelization and add flavor,” Snyder explains. “That’s one of the differences between the corn and flour tortillas.”

 As the baked tortillas emerge from the oven, the conveyor elevates them into an enclosed chilling chamber-there are chill chambers on both flour lines-where they cool down for about 2.5-3 min. to a temperature of about 70°F.

The chambers are about 30 ft. long and take the tortillas through 22 passes, says Haig. This is done to cool them evenly in a shorter period of time. Exiting the chiller, the tortillas progress to a visual inspection system that checks for size, shape and holes or defects and contaminants. If it spots any problems, an air blast kicks the tortilla offline into a bin.

Automatic counting and stacking is next as another station automatically counts off the appropriate amount of tortillas for a stack and then layers them and then pushes them through a belt system that readies the stacks for bagging. They get tamped slightly and are stacked in groups of 10.

At this point, the stacks of 8-in. tortillas are grouped and bagged by hand, depending on their specifications, but the majority are sent through an automatic bagger/sealer with PLC control. Baez notes that the production lines are equipped with “the traditional manual backup,” as he calls it, as an insurance policy. However, the automatic packaging process has increased throughput by about 25%, says Haig.

The stacks are staged or grouped for bagging in clear film bags. The stacks also pass through a metal detector that rejects any foreign materials. The bags are heat-sealed before passing an ink-jet date coder and then the bag codes are inspected. Next, the bags are sorted and manually placed into 12-count shipping cases that are erected by a semi-automatic case former. The cases are then sent through a tape sealer and are palletized. The palletized loads are then sent into holding in the 20,000-sq.-ft. dry-storage warehouse before being loaded onto trucks.

The lines each generate as many as 60,000 tortillas or more an hour. “We can change the equipment over several times or not frequently, depending on demand. We try to maintain one size of tortilla through a shift,” says Snyder.

Special features

Adjacent to one production room is a quality assurance lab, where research and development take place and products are tested to determine moisture, preservative, pH levels and other variables. It’s also where some of the new recipes are created. With the data gathered, the company can provide product characteristic and test results information to customers, Snyder explains. “We test each batch in this lab,” he says. “We retain something from each batch and lot we make. This is a QA sticker that indicates what time the product was made, a product code, temperature levels, pH levels, what line it ran on, the expiration date and we keep these samples through their expiration date. We also do random sensory testing after the end of a product’s shelf life to ensure that everything is what is should be.”

Snyder discusses more evidence that Don Pancho East is focused on energy efficiency. “We have a high-efficiency quick-water system that heats water instantly as our demand requires, and it only runs during our sanitation shift.”

The facility is air conditioned but the ovens generate an immense amount of heat. To contain the heat, the company added a wall-like divider in both production rooms at the discharge of the high-heat ovens. “This keeps the heat on this side of the facility, so that we don’t have to battle the heat in the rest of the plant,” Haig says. “The heat dividers contain the heat in one area of the room, so it’s very efficient.”

Quality assurance (QA) is also performed throughout production, Haig adds. “We test hourly for metal detection, ph and moisture content at the time that the dough is being fed to the final product stage. We take retention samples for customers in our lab and perform shelf life checks from July-we’re looking at a sample to see how long things last. Another part of our QA system involves raw materials that are checked before they even get into the building.”

There are also established track-and-trace procedures, Snyder says. “There’s full lot accountability from point of inception for each ingredient and each component throughout the entire system. Once product is shipped, we can trace it back to who received what ingredients, what ingredients went into the product, what the lot numbers are and we do mock recalls several times a year with different variables, ingredients and products.”

What’s next?

Currently, Don Pancho East is in the process of becoming Safe Quality Food (SQF)-certified through the SQF Institute, Arlington, Va. “We just completed this certification at our plant in Salem, Ore.,” Baez explains. “We scored a 99.1 at that plant. We look forward to that process here.” Don Pancho East is also inspected regularly by Cook & Thurber, and is audited by the military as well as by Silliker for certain customers. Several times a year, the plant is inspected internally and by select customers who conduct their own in-house inspection services.

Baez agrees, an expansion in some way could be on the horizon. “We are probably going to expand further,” he says. “Our goal is to provide national freshness to our existing and future customers and make sure we deliver. We’re always looking to grow and one target would be to expand our coverage. Adding another facility could be on the horizon.”

There is plenty of room at Don Pancho East for additional production lines in either the corn or the flour rooms, Haig says. “We built this plant to grow. Being a part of Reser’s Fine Foods, when we build a plant, we take what we have learned from other plants and apply it to the new one. And the new plant is always better. We build big because it’s less expensive to add equipment to a large space than to knock down a wall five years later. It gives us the freedom to make changes in the future. Having said that, we could expand this building because we have the land here to do so. This entire complex is designed to handle a 320,000-sq.-ft. facility, so in the future, it could be expanded.”

Says Baez, “That’s why we also try to standardize the equipment and training at all of our plants. We have very established partnerships with vendors and suppliers. We are looking to explore any and all opportunities to expand Don Pancho and continue to be that national brand we have become. We have room here for at least two more corn lines and a frying line. So we could probably add maybe three more lines.”

Baez is very excited about the future. “Things are really coming together,” he says. “Every successful operation really starts on the inside. It’s the baking that really allows our team to flourish. And the star is the tortilla. If we can make products the way we promise, then we’re successful. Every baker who’s successful has a great, consistent high-quality product that stands the test of time. We see great consistency with Steve and his team. We’re meeting the goals we set for this plant. Steve and Mark have met and exceeded the initial first-year goals, with months to spare. They’ve done a great job.”