Tons of Tortillas

By Bob Garrison and Dan Malovany
Ruiz Foods already produces more than one billion tortillas annually to produce its famed taquitos and other Mexican entrees and hot snacks. But a current expansion project will double the plant’s tortilla-manufacturing capacity.
It started with recipes for Grandma Rosie Ruiz’s homemade enchiladas.  Next came tamales and, later, burritos.  And when Ruiz Foods scaled up to mass processing, Grandma Rosie’s recipes became the base formulations and standards for foods the company now produces.
Most importantly, Ruiz Foods has mastered the formula for operations success since the company’s start in 1964. That much is clear today for anyone driving past the 300,000-sq.-ft. plant in Dinuba, Calif. Moreover, it soon promises to be just as busy outside the facility. Ruiz Foods broke ground this fall for a 200,000-sq.-ft. expansion.
How Ruiz Foods makes the whole enchilada
Actually, here’s a step-by-step look at the production of chicken chimichangas at Ruiz Foods.
• STEP 1/Receiving: Ruiz Foods transfers dry various bulk dry ingredients to a dry storage warehouse. Refrigerated and frozen ingredients (including cheeses, meat, poultry and vegetables) are kept in larger cooler storage rooms located between the receiving dock and cold mix room.
• STEP 2/Ingredient Preparation: In the case of first-shift production, pre-batch kitchen workers arrive at midnight to remove cheese and chicken from shipping boxes. Used within four days, these ingredients arrive at the cold mix room and are maintained at 40 degrees to ensure food safety and proper consistency for processing. Following computerized formula print-outs, workers then add water, spices, green chilies and other vegetables. The mixture reaches its proper consistency within about five minutes and then is ready to be dumped into mobile, stainless-steel totes. These will be kept in a chilled staging area (and sampled by QA technicians) before use on the production room floor.
• STEP 3/Tortilla Baking: Two outside flour silos feed flour (using an air conveyance system) into Ruiz Foods’ plant on a batch volume basis. Pre-set amounts of flour and metered water are released into one of four large, upright mixers. After dough is created, it’s removed, then fed onto a tortilla line. These travel onward through a continuous three-pass oven, which bakes the thin tortillas in just seconds before they exit the other end. Afterward, the tortillas are cooled (by conveyor) and transferred to filling lines as needed.
• STEP 3/Process Filling: Team members transfer filling mixture into filling machines positioned beside each filling line. Tortillas on the conveyor belt receive filling. Then they are quickly folded and rolled.
• STEP 4/Process Frying & Freezing: The rolled tortillas — now looking like burritos — pass into a continuous fryer, which cooks them for +/- 30 seconds. Although it’s only a matter of a few feet, workers check the chimichangas  (now golden brown) before they travel into a spiral freezer. They will exit frozen.
• STEP 5/Packaging & Palletizing: Discharged in the packaging room, burritos then are channeled, single file, into an automatic wrapping machine. This unit will individually wrap and seal each one. Then it’s off to a metal detector and horizontal form/fill/seal cartoning unit. Automated case-packing and palletizing equipment finish the process with labels added to track the case through Ruiz Foods’ adjacent storage freezer.
The five flour and two corn tortilla lines currently operating produce anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 dozen items per hour. Some 130 team members work three shifts, 24 hours a day. After baking and cooling, the tortillas are automatically transferred over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected food-processing area to produce taquitos, burritos, enchiladas and other frozen Mexican entrees and hot snacks that are sold to a variety of channels. Annually, Ruiz Foods produces more than one billion flour tortillas and 84 million corn tortillas, making the company the largest producer of tortillas that are not sold directly to the supermarket shelf.
The much-needed expansion will double the capacity for tortilla production at the plant, which allows it to meet sales demands for the near future, says Bryce Ruiz, executive vice president of supply chain.
“We have to expand the plant to make room for new products and to meet production capacity. We plan to add lines and move our faster lines into the new operation,” he explains.
At the same time, the company conducts short runs and produces signature products for its customers on slower, more hands-on lines.
“We’ll still have a lot of flexibility built within the bakery to produce a wide variety of products ranging from 3.5 in. to 18 in., depending on the product we’re producing” Ruiz says. “We want to be as flexible of a plant as possible. We want flexible people who react quickly to our customers requests.”
The emphasis with the expansion will be on combining automation and optimization to get the job done. In addition to adding capacity, the company plans to improve operating efficiencies.
“We have to leverage the strength of our employees versus finding new technology to increase capacity and getting the job done more efficiently,” he says.  “That way we can maintain our flexibility and operate at an optimal level at the same time. For us, improving quality is critical, and maintaining that quality is essential.”
Moreover, as it expands in California, the company also is looking at building multiple facilities, possibly in the Midwest and out East. Ruiz says the additional facilities will provide production capacity, allow it to service its customers better and help the company lower its distribution costs as it solidifies its presence in the retail freezer case and expands nationally through such customers as 7-Eleven.
Can-Do Attitude
Of course, construction reflects how the company has been managed and how it has grown over the last five years. Like so many ingredients, Ruiz Foods’ team members, production practices, equipment and “can-do” attitude combine for a mixture that’s both effective and innovative.  It’s no small task however.  Ruiz Foods employs 1,800 team members who process as many as 185 different SKUs for every channel of distribution.
“We want to build and enhance Ruiz Foods’ base business where quality is our claim,” Ruiz says. “At the same time, we pride ourselves on being nimble, fast to market and creative in developing food solutions. In the case of Go-Go Taquitos [a product developed for 7-Eleven convenience stores in 2002], we identified an opportunity in the market and a [customer] relationship we wanted to have. Then it was just a matter of sheer commitment and drive on the part of everyone here to make it happen.”
With 7-Eleven as its partner over the last 18 months, Ruiz Foods has learned that it needs to constantly focus on product innovation to be successful.
“7-Eleven and Go-Go Taquitos really make us universal,” Ruiz says. “Ruiz is constantly searching for new products and new partners to work with. At the same time, just as with many of our employees who have been with us for 20 or 30 years, we have some of our same customers who have been with us about that long.”
Over the past decade, Ruiz Foods has developed a growth culture where change is constant, notes Kim Ruiz Beck, the company’s vice chairman.  In 1993, it had just moved from a 75,000-sq.-ft. facility into 220,000-sq.-ft. plant. At the time, officials at this sales-driven company felt the need to build production capacity. By the mid-’90s, Ruiz Foods admittedly was bogged down by as many as 400 SKUs.
“We’ve learned that SKU management is critical and that we need a balance between mass production and batch production,” says Ruiz Beck. “We’re committed to growing and know that new products are important. It’s just key to figure out how to develop them with the least burden to our plant.”
It was only after mastering that balance that Ruiz Foods would build again. In 2000, it added a 65,000-sq.-ft. freezer and warehouse, complete with automated product tracking technology. That warehouse/freezer now handles about 15 million cases a year.
“This expansion is critical to meet the needs of our customers as we grow together,”  said chairman Fred Ruiz at the time. “The additional capacity will give us the flexibility needed as we expand to new markets.”
Ruiz Foods has been more strategic, and just as the company has attracted sales and marketing veterans, it has likewise bolstered its operations corps with experienced leaders in manufacturing and logistics.
A 20-year food industry veteran, Brian Miller joined Ruiz Foods four years ago and soon afterward was promoted to vice president of operations. Having worked on the front lines of the Go-Go Taquitos project, Miller knew that Ruiz Foods would never be the same.
“It changed the whole way we did business,” he notes. “Prior to that, we were more of a four-part operation and our processes, ingredient handling and equipment — by comparison — were relatively simple. After Go-Go Taquitos, we now manufacture products with up to 14 different ingredients and steps, and we are innovators, once again, in the frozen Mexican food category.
“All of a sudden, we were working with more vegetable bases, meat bases, dairy and cheese bases. Our plant was the pilot plant so coordinating everything meant more work within the building for our R&D, quality assurance, food safety and processing personnel.”
Ruiz Foods has responded, in part, by investing in automated and process flow technologies.  Then again, most of Miller’s efforts have been directed at shoring up in-plant practices and procedures.  These focus on everything from food safety and ensuring absolute materials integrity in raw and finished product areas to supplying production lines on more of a just-in-time fashion.
To provide front-end controls, Ruiz Foods has “Star Vendor,” a vendor certification program where its suppliers are responsible for ensuring that incoming ingredients are up to spec. For some ingredients, especially among meat and dairy products, Ruiz Foods runs microbial testing. The final products are not released from the facility until the testing is complete and comes back clear.
In addition to its internal inspections, which include everything from visual and physical tests to laboratory analysis, Ruiz Foods’ operation is inspected by large-scale foodservice institutions and retail chains.
“Although we are a USDA-inspected plant, we rely on the USDA regulations as the minimum standards for production,” Bryce Ruiz says.
Additionally, the plant has a full Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) program and a total quality analysis (TQA) system.
At the back end of the system, Ruiz Foods uses a bar-code system to create a closed loop of production and provide lot traceability. Currently, the company is exploring radio frequency identification technology to improve its warehouse and distribution process.
To be a good neighbor in Dinuba, Ruiz Foods recently installed a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant, which allowed the city to double its capacity to process wastewater.
The company also installed a co-generation system. In addition to eliminating any outages that plagued California a few years back, the system supplies one quarter of the plant’s electrical needs. The plant uses the steam from the co-generator to create hot water for the operation and to heat the facility as well.
Moreover, because it’s located in California’s Central Agriculture area, Ruiz Foods installed an air-purifying system with a 1 micron filter that turns air around every three minutes for employee health and food safety.
Rewarding Employee Involvement
Yet another program involves merit pay increases for workers who demonstrate improvement and take at least 10 hours of additional training each year.
Speaking of personnel, officials estimate that of the current 1,800-member workforce, as many as 550 team members joined Ruiz Foods during the past three years.
“We’re very dependent on people — rather than automation — to maintain flexibility. And flexibility makes us marketable,” Miller says. “Ruiz has been in a continued high-growth pattern, and we don’t want to lose that momentum.  Speaking for operations, we’re eager to take on any new product idea. We know if you don’t hit the market in time, you could lose your advantage.  I like having that edge in working here.”
Miller notes that Ruiz Foods is always looking for automation that can boost productivity and/or improve team member safety. Then again, he notes that Ruiz Foods is not about to jeopardize quality standards — involving tortilla rolling, for example — for the sake of new equipment.
Likewise, the company has not reduced its workforce during the past three years. Rather, as it automates, it provides training, if necessary, and reassigns team members to other areas.
“When you think about our last three major snack project efforts (Go-Go Taquitos, Tornados and Cruncheros), it speaks of the sheer commitment and dedication from our team members,” Miller says. “You might expect so much in another manufacturing facility, but we get that and more from our folks. They take us a little further.”
Ruiz Foods goes further as well. Easily among the industry’s most proactive employers, it recently began a new program to provide housing assistance to employees.
“We have a real engine out there, and I’ve never worked in an environment where the people were so committed, so loyal and so flexible,” Miller concludes. “It’s an honor to work with each team member.”