Quality is the Mission

Mission Foods’ versatile Dallas plant houses 13 lines that produce a wide variety of tortillas, chips, tostadas and taco shells for both retail and foodservice customers. At this company …
Next year, employees at Mission Foods’ Dallas plant will shoot for the gold. Sure, the next Olympics are not until 2008 in Beijing, but the medal they want to achieve is the Gold Standard from the American Institute of Baking.
Simply put, that’s no easy task. AIB’s comprehensive program requires that the facility pass two unannounced audits of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and install a complete, certified Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) program.
And that’s not all. The plant needs to pass a Quality System Evaluation that checks everything from employee training to documentation of ingredients.
Moreover, twice a year, AIB will pull three products from the production line and test them against the company’s standards. It will also take samples of three ingredients from the back room and test them against one component to make sure it matches specifications.
“With the Quality System Evaluation, they want to check your work, instructions, procedure policies and everything that has to do with how you run your business,” says Germán Chávez, plant manager of the Dallas facility. “They want to know how you protect your products, what contingency plans you have for your products, hold a mock recall and have contingency plans for almost any situation. And, they don’t want to talk to us in management. They want to talk to the people who are actually doing the work on the lines.”
At the Dallas plant, quality is the mission. Since 1997, the plant has received numerous awards and recognition for its quality improvement teams, its overall quality and its sanitation standards from both Mission Foods and outside vendors.
Since 2000, when Chávez transferred in from one of Mission’s California plants, the 390 employees in the Dallas operation have stepped it up a couple notches. Earlier this year during an unannounced AIB audit, for example, the plant received a superior rating of 950 out of 1,000 possible points. Four years ago, Chávez says, plant personnel would have been ecstatic with a 900 score.
Although it had a HACCP program since 1999, the facility was officially certified by AIB in March. Each department has monthly training meetings as well as shorter get-togethers each week to talk about safety, production and other matters.
“It’s all about training and employee involvement,” Chávez notes. “Employees understand the importance of food safety and daily clean up of their areas, and remind them, if something looks wrong, to call a supervisor and have it inspected.”
Quality controls start from before the ingredients are even delivered and then throughout the production process. Under the corporate total quality program, all vendors must pre-certify that their ingredients are up to specifications. Mission Foods allows its plants to use only those ingredients from a pre-approved list. In the end, it saves a ton of manpower.
“Before, we had a lot of people in quality assurance running analyses. Now, only one person is in charge of receiving, checking and filing certificates of analysis to make sure they’re up to spec,” Chávez explains.
Under the company’s total quality optimization program, the operation uses near infrared (NIR) analysis to monitor products as they leave the oven. Located right before packaging, the system sends a continuous beam of NIR light onto the products to check for color, oil level, amount of moisture and other variables. Employees then use handhelds to download data from each shift.
“To do a moisture analysis on a conventional oven, it used to take two hours,” Chávez says. “With NIR technology, it’s right there on the line in a matter of seconds. Before, we had a lot of information on paper. We used a lot of forms to collect data. Now we use handhelds to collect the data.
“If you want to see how a product has been performing in the last 13 weeks,” he adds, “all you do is pull the data, and it will give you histograms and all of the analytical information on that product. It’s entirely paperless.”
If a product goes out of spec, operators can divert it until further analysis or put it on hold, he says.
Serving All Channels
Quality assurance has become even more critical partly because of the complexity of the Dallas operation. Because it serves both retail and foodservice channels, the plant produces more than 250 product varieties, including signature items for specific customers, using more than 50 different formulations.
“This is one of the most complex facilities in our company because we produce a lot of products for foodservice as well as for retail,” Chávez says.
The Dallas facility makes corn tortillas, wheat flour tortillas, tostadas, taco shells, tortilla chips and unfried chips. Varieties range from 5.75-in. corn tortillas stacked 90 to a pack for supermarket and other retail outlets to 13-in. wheat flour wraps for foodservice chains. These wraps come in varieties ranging from plain, dried-tomato and chipotle to jalapeño, barley and rosemary.
Retail accounts for about 70% of its customers, foodservice comprises 23% of sales and warehouse clubs make up the rest. Moreover, the Dallas plant ships taco shells, tostadas and tortilla chips to Mission Foods’ Houston and San Antonio facilities, which produce only corn and wheat flour tortillas.
In addition to product variety, the Dallas plant is a workhorse. Annually, production capacity is more than 120 million lbs. Independent distributors ship product to retail outlets while foodservice distributors pick up products for their customers.
As a part of its strategy, Mission Foods continues to invest in its operations to improve quality and keep up with sales. For instance, after it rolled out its low-carb flour tortillas earlier this year, demand for the product was so great that the company ran out of capacity within a month, notes Asima Syed, senior vice president of marketing. Although short-term capacity issues have been resolved, the company continues to invest in the long run. This year Mission intends to invest $50 million in the United States.
As Jairo Senise, the company’s president and CEO, explains, “We are quite flexible in terms of capital expenditures. If we need more [capacity] and the business is generating more sales, of course, we’ll be putting more behind resources to serve better our customers and consumers.”
Running Full Speed
Out of Mission Foods’ 13 plants, the 209,000-sq.-ft. Dallas operation is fourth largest. It runs 24/7, with each department made up of 18 shifts. Each department shuts down on a different day a week for sanitation and preventive maintenance.
For bulk ingredients, the facility houses three silos that hold more than 500,000 lbs. of corn and wheat flour and tanks that contain more than 90,000 lbs. of soybean oil. Prescaling of minor and micro ingredients is done by hand. In the raw ingredient warehouse, all allergens are stored separately from other ingredients to prevent cross-contamination. As a part of its HACCP program, allergens are identified by a blue label or tag. In the scaling process, non-allergens are scaled first followed by allergens. After that process is complete, they wash the scale.
Throughout the facility, there are five corn flour tortilla lines, four wheat flour tortilla lines, two chip lines and a tostada line and taco shell line. Mission Foods plans to install a state-of-the-art chip line later his year to increase capacity and improve product quality.
The corn tortilla department can produce more than 70 million lbs. of product a year. Two identical tortilla lines can each crank out 2,050 lbs. an hour while two others turn out 2,300 lbs. an hour. Each hour, the fifth line can make 670 lbs. of triangle, unfried chips, which are fried by many restaurants on-site to provide their customers with hot, fresh chips. The unfried chips can come in red, blue, yellow or white varieties. In this vertically integrated company, all corn masa flour comes from Mission Foods’ sister company, Azteca Milling.
All corn tortilla lines are similar, with continuous mixing and feeding of the hopper leading to the die cutter and then to the three-pass, convection oven. Scrap and rejects are reground and put back into the process.
Each corn tortilla line has its own packaging system. After cooling, the tortillas are automatically stacked, then they are polybagged and pass through metal detection. Following twist-tying and checkweighing, the packages are put in cases and palletized.
About 90% of corn tortilla production ends up in the retail channel. Locally, the most popular item, an 83-oz. bag that contains 90, 5.75-in. corn tortillas, is manually placed into blue buckets or totes that, in many ways look like recycle bins. Because the packages are so big and heavy, only six packages fit into each tote. On the fifth line, unfried chips tumble into a polybag inside a case. They’re typically sold in 28 or 30-lb. increments.
The wheat flour department can produce more than 20 million lbs. of product a year. The four lines produce between 1,000 and 1,700 lbs. an hour. Currently, the department is at capacity, Chávez says.
For the foodservice channel, which comprises the bulk of production for this department, the most popular products are 12- and 13-in. wraps. For the retail market, the 6-in. soft taco and 8-in. fajita size are the top sellers.  
Unlike in the corn tortilla department, wheat flour tortilla production uses a batch process. Each line has a dedicated horizontal mixer that produces 1,100-lb. batches using 600 lbs. of flour. After mixing, the dough is dumped into a trough and lifted to a six-pocket divider/rounder. For larger foodservice tortillas, the divider is converted into four pockets.
After flour dusting and ambient proofing, the doughballs drop down chutes and are heat-pressed before baking in a three-pass oven. After cooling, the tortillas are counted, stacked, bagged and sent through metal detection.
The packages are checkweighed and then heat-sealed or twist-tied, depending on the package size. After code-dating, they are cased and palletized.
During SF&WB’s trip, the frying department was down for sanitation and preventive maintenance. Briefly, here’s a breakdown on these operations. The two tortilla chip lines can each crank out approximately 1,500 lbs. per hour, or more than 20 million lbs. a year. The tostada shell line can make nearly 6 million lbs. per year. Finally, the taco shell line can produce more than 4 million lbs. per year.
Warm and Fresh Delivery
The Dallas plant has 146,000 sq. ft. of warehouse space with more than 1,900 pallet positions. The facility also has two refrigerated rooms with more than 460 pallet positions. Shelf-stable tortillas have anywhere from 8 to 14 days of shelf life, depending on the formula. Putting them in the cooler extends the shelf life up to 60 days. Overall, the warehouse accounts for more than two-thirds of the space in the building.
Despite the large space, the bakery keeps little inventory. For the retail channel, for instance, the warehouse has no more than one day of inventory. In fact, the company prefers to get its products into retail outlets in 24 hours or less.
“Our local distributors will order a product and get it sometimes within an hour after production,” Chávez says. “Often, the tortillas will still be warm when they get into the store. After production, it usually takes six to eight hours to get them to the store.”
The warehouse’s loadbank is a state-of-the-art racking and pulling system for effective first-in-first-out product rotation. The SAP-run Warehouse Management System uses live inventory controlled by handhelds. The plant serves more than 200 distributors between retail and foodservice, Chávez notes.
“With our loadbank, the warehouse can pick and choose product and put it on a loadbank conveyor for quick distribution,” he adds. “Part of the loadbank is for high-moving items, such as flour or corn tortillas, and a second for slower-moving items. We can pick one case of taco shells or tostadas and a pallet of corn or flour tortillas. We can do whatever they want.”
For the foodservice channel, the bakery holds no more than three days of inventory. The same is for fried products. Much of the refrigerated products are destined for the foodservice channel or underdeveloped retail markets.
That’s something that Mission is on a mission to change throughout the nation. For example, 10 years ago, the plant sold refrigerated tortillas in markets that weren’t developed. Now, Chávez says, it’s freshly delivered in those areas.
“As we introduce more products and begin marketing them, we have gone from selling more fresh tortillas and fewer refrigerated,” he says. For this quality-driven company, boosting consumption of fresh tortillas is an ongoing mission.
Mission’s Positioned for Growth
Sensing that Mexican foods would become the next hot trend, Roberto Gonzalez Barrera acquired a small tortilla operation in 1976 called Mission Foods with a scant $2 million in annual sales. Today, Mission Foods is one of the largest producers of corn and wheat flour tortillas in the United States.
Mission Foods, along with Azteca Milling L.P., make up Gruma Corp., which, in turn, is a subsidiary of Gruma S.A. de C.V. Based in Monterrey, Mexico, the diversified milling and Mexican food conglomerate is one of the world’s largest producers of tortillas.
While the U.S. baking industry is struggling with soft sales and the impact of fad diets, Mission Foods is experiencing strong growth in the sales of its products. In fact, it’s one of the top-performing divisions for its parent company, which was founded by Gonzalez Barrera and his father more than 50 years ago. Gonzalez Barrera is currently the chairman and CEO of the business that’s publicly traded in Mexico and on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).
For the fiscal year ended Dec. 31, 2003, net sales for Gruma S.A. de C.V. rose 12% to $2.03 billion while sales for Gruma USA grew at a 12% rate to $985.9 million. Gruma USA accounts for 49% of its parent company’s sales.
Gruma Corp.’s sales increase was sparked by a 13% in corn flour tortilla volume and a 5% gain in wheat flour tortilla volume, according to A.C. Nielsen.
According to the company’s Web site, “Retail corn flour tortilla sales grew 12%, buoyed by strong market growth in the northern California region coupled with focused promotional activity in the Texas region.”
Corn tortillas also benefited from a recent reformulation that made the products tastier and softer. The company put extensive efforts in promoting the reformulated corn tortillas under the heading “Great New Taste.”
Wheat flour tortillas experienced strong growth in the foodservice channel as several major chain customers added new recipes and promoted new menu items.
More recently, for the second quarter ended June 30, sales for Gruma S.A. de C.V. increased 9.9% while net profit jumped 38.7%, the company reported. For the first six months of fiscal year 2004, its sales rose 9.3% to $1.06 billion while its net profit is up a 93.4%. All figures have been converted to U.S. dollars using the rate of 11.38 pesos to $1.
This year, low-carb tortillas are boosting Gruma Corp.’s sales. In fact, sales are so strong that the company’s is at near-capacity on many of its wheat flour lines. This year Mission intends to invest $50 million in the United States. Over the last year, Gruma’s stock has risen more than 40%. Moreover, expect more new products from Gruma and increased distribution for both Mission and Guerrero brands.
“Innovation always will be a big strategy for us and a big priority for us,” Senise says. “One growth opportunity is geographic expansion. There are still some areas where we are not present, and our intention to better cover our customers because [many of] our customers are distributing on a national basis, and we need to serve them well in every part of the country.”