A Modern Marriage
By Deborah Cassell
Automated equipment and skilled labor go hand-in-hand at La Reina, where workers produce hot-pressed and hand-stretched tortillas for private label and co-pack customers.
In today’s world, automation is the key to making things faster and more efficient. Advancements in computers and machinery have afforded companies bigger contracts and more extensive distribution channels.
But there’s something about the human touch that makes a product extra special. At La Reina, that product is the tortilla, and what makes them special for this Los Angeles-based private label and co-pack bakery is its employees. Although La Reina relies heavily on automated technology, its workers are at the core of its business. A dedicated staff of men and women, some of whom have been with the company for 25 years or more, contributes to La Reina’s success as a maker of traditional, flavored, all-natural and Quality Assurance International-certified (QAI) and Kosher-certified (Star K) organic tortillas.
Few breads are as simple in design as the tortilla. That said, few breads come in so many varieties. At La Reina, flavor profiles range from jalapeño white Cheddar to sun-dried tomato, and sizes range from 4.5 in. to 16 in.
But all tortillas start out the same way, as a mixture of flour, oil and water. Oil and water are automatically dispensed into all 15 lines at La Reina’s 70,000-sq.-ft. facility. Micro ingredients such as a particular baking soda, dough softener or flavoring requested by co-pack customers are then added in batches.
Once the dough is made, it comes out of the mixing room on stretchers in 400- to 500-lb. batches. Each batch goes down a shoot where it is rounded and divided into small dough balls, which differ in weight depending on the desired size of the end-product.
“Weight is important,” notes Ricardo Robles, president of the company. For example, a 1.7-oz. ball results in an 8-in. tortilla.
Once the dough balls are made, they go into a proofer, where they are given 10 minutes to resposo (Spanish for “rest”), Ricardo explains. Afterward, they are either automatically pressed on hot plates or “hand-stretched.” One line uses what Ricardo calls a “super huge plate” to hot press 16, 2.8-oz. dough balls into 10.5-in. tortillas. Each of the lines produce about 800 dozen an hour, he adds.
“We don’t make a die-cut tortilla,” Ricardo says. Instead, many of La Reina’s tortillas are “hand-stretched.” In short, dough balls are hand-fed into what Ricardo calls “a glorified pin roller” that automatically stretches two balls at a time into oblong-shaped tortillas before employees on each side of the machine quickly hand-stretch them into round tortillas and they are conveyed into the oven. Because hand-stretched tortillas are not hot-pressed, they remain cool to the touch until baked.
After being pressed or stretched, the tortillas are baked at 450ºF for 25 seconds. Next, they come out on a vacuum conveyor that leads up to a cooling conveyor, which sucks in the tortillas and begins the cooling process. The products are cooled at 40ºF for 3-4 minutes before going into a walk-in box where they continue to chill.
The tortillas then go into a counter/stacker where an electronic eye counts the number of rounds before they are packaged by hand. La Reina offers a variety of packaging options and can print almost any message the customer desires onto the bags, including pull-by and manufactured dates, times and shifts. Some boxes and packages feature jet-inked julien dates and bar codes. Others are zip-locked, such as a shipment being sent to Australia.
“We can put a ton of information on the bag,” Ricardo says.
Although La Reina relies on a mixture of both equipment and employee-handled functions, in the next few months, the company will become more automated, starting with its baggers/sealers. Once the plant is fully automated, it will add code dates to its packages, as well.
“We have to invest in automation,” Ricardo asserts.
After all, it’s through automation that La Reina has become what it is today — a major exporter of what was once a local product. La Reina ships countless tortillas around the United States and out of the country, as far as Japan, Korea, China, New Zealand and Australia. Products to be exported are kept at 10ºF on corrugated racks in the company’s warehouse until they ship.
Back in Los Angeles, many of La Reina’s tortillas are distributed locally to foodservice/institutional channels, which use the products to make burritos. These customers return the company’s corrugated racks so that they can be re-used as a means of both economy and environmental concern.
“Say a tray costs $8-9,” Ricardo says. “We can re-use the tray ‘till it breaks.”
La Reina stores the dry goods that it makes, including taco and tortilla shells, in a separate area of the warehouse. Micro ingredients and flour also are stored separate from those. Organic ingredients are completely segregated and labeled as such on warehouse shelves.
Although the company asks for a 10-day lead time for out-of-state customers, “we operate like a bakery — order today, get it tomorrow,” Ricardo says. “We can crank out product very quickly for our customers.”
La Reina also ensures that the products it’s producing are of the utmost quality. Just outside of the production area is an R&D lab where simple tests and quality control procedures are conducted in-house. For example, the dough is tested for moisture and pH. Sifter, tailings and metal detector logs also are kept here.
“We like to keep at the forefront of making new product,” Ricardo says. And La Reina will continue to do so, with the help of its employees and the addition of necessary automation, which work well together, as this family-run company proves.
Plant At A Glance
Company: La Reina, Inc.
Plant: Los Angeles. QAI- and Kosher-certified.
No. of Employees: 200
No. of lines: 15
No. of shifts: 2 shifts, 6 days a week
Products: Traditional, organic, all-natural and flavored flour tortillas.
Distribution: Private label and co-pack
Web site: www.LaReinaInc.com