By Deborah Cassell
Innovative. Automated. State-of-the-art. Those are just three ways to describe tortilla producer La Bonita Olé’s new plant — and its bullet-proof flour silo — in Tampa, Fla.
For 15 years, La Bonita Olé’s flour and corn tortilla business has been gaining momentum on the East Coast. The growth of its Tam-x-icos and Wrap-itz brands seems undeniable. And the recent opening of its highly automated 40,000-sq.-ft. plant in Tampa, Fla., offers further proof that the tortilla producer is emerging as a force to be reckoned with.
One has only to check out its imported flour silo, which is made from — of all things — ballistic nylon.
The silo is just one of many innovations at La Bonita Olé. Take, for example, the brand-spanking-new corn tortilla line, for which the company soon will grind its own masa.
What’s intriguing about La Bonita Olé’s progress is that until March of this year, it was without a production facility. Instead, the company’s products were co-packed by other manufacturers. That all started to change in October of 2006 when the tortilla company began construction on its new production plant on Columbus Drive, just 15 minutes from Tampa International Airport. The equipment was installed in January, and the facility began churning out tortillas a mere two months later.
Today, the plant produces what vice president of operations Dave Waters calls “a boatload of product.” In short, it features two lines — one flour and one just-installed corn — that make tortillas for retail, private label, co-pack and foodservice channels in 28 states.
Flour tortillas are big business for La Bonita Olé. The company’s bulk flour system holds 65,000 lb. of flour, according to Waters. The flour is blown into the aforementioned nylon silo, which was made in Italy.
Although the silo looked like a big bag upon arrival, “It took five of us to put it up,” recalls Waters, who bought the item “sight unseen.” That said, the innovation actually cost half the price of a metal silo and requires a lot less maintenance, he adds.
The flour is blown from the silo into a weigh cell, which features a control panel that allows employees to monitor how much flour is used at a time. The flour, water, shortening and other ingredients are blended in a spiral mixer, and then rolled out and dumped into a hopper at a rate of four batches an hour.
La Bonita Olé uses 600-lb. capacity spiral mixers, but it mixes batches containing 200 lb. of flour base each. Small batching is preferable, Waters says, because the dough is only 15 minutes old at the outside, and “dough changes over time,” he explains. Smaller batches can be produced more quickly and result in the proper dough consistency, he notes.
The dough is automatically divided and rounded into nine pieces at a time for 10- and 12-in. tortillas and 16 pieces for 6- or 8-in. tortillas. Regardless of the size, the dough balls are proofed for 8 minutes at 89ºF. Altogether, La Bonita Olé can produce 1,440 dozen tortillas an hour when making 16-ball batches and 820 dozen tortillas an hour when making larger products.
Although La Bonita Olé sometimes adjusts the proofing temperature, “in Florida, we don’t need much humidity,” Waters says with a smile.
After proofing, the dough balls are pre-pressed before being hot-pressed for 1.5 seconds under plates set at two different temperatures. The top plate press is 403ºF, while the bottom one is 415ºF. The press makes 18-20 strokes per minute.
Next, the pieces are conveyed onto a discharge platform that is heated and pre-bakes the products at 415ºF — a feature somewhat unique to the tortilla producer, Waters says.
The tortillas then go through a three-pass, slat-belt oven. The upper belt is 300ºF, the middle belt is 435ºF, and the lower belt is between 188ºF and 200ºF. There is a 30-second dwell time — longer for whole wheat and low-carb products, as Water points out.
Finally, the tortillas enter the seven-tier cooling room, where they sit for 2.5 minutes at 48ºF.
“Cold, wet air doesn’t do your product any good,” Waters says. In fact, moisture may shorten shelf life and increase the possibility of mold. Therefore, the room features an air dryer that keeps the tortillas cold and dry.
After baking and cooling, the products travel through a special vision system that monitors their diameter and checks for holes and uneven edges.
“You can even get it to spot color,” Waters notes. Tortillas that pass the test are shown onscreen with green boxes around them, while tortillas that fail are boxed in red and automatically discarded by the machine.
Lastly, the tortillas enter the counter-stacker before being packaged by the company’s high-tech bagger, which comes from Germany.
“It’s very fancy,” Waters deadpans.
But he’s right. As a stack of six tortillas zips forward, an arm with a vacuum lifts the top of the plastic bag to be stuffed just before two nozzles blow air into the bag. The tortillas are inserted, and the air is vacuumed out before jaws heat-seal and cut the leftover plastic, which then is vacuumed into a receptacle. When the machine runs out of bags, it automatically refills itself. The system doesn’t have much downtime, Waters notes.
Finally, the bags travel through a metal detector and checkweigher. If five instead of six tortillas somehow make it through the counter-stacker, the checkweigher will catch the shortage in this final stage.
Before being cartoned by employees, the sell-by date is inked on the bags. The boxes then are stored on wheeled pallets in a walk-in cooler.
“We ship two to three times a week, but we ship almost everything we make, so it doesn’t sit long,” Waters says.
‘Colonel’ of Corn
By military standards, La Bonita Olé’s plant is as orderly as they come. Although its corn tortillas still were being co-packed by other manufacturers until early November, it recently installed a corn line. During SF&WB’s visit, that line had only been functioning for a short time, but it already was working like a well-oiled machine.
Flour tortillas are a top-seller in both retail and foodservice channels, but La Bonita Olé also produces 6,000 dozen corn tortillas an hour.
Employees first load the corn masa into a hopper, which feeds a six-round sheeter head. The dough is die-cut, and the resulting tortillas go through a three-pass infrared burning system for 23 seconds. The upper rack is 385ºF, the middle rack is 400ºF, and the lower rack is 280ºF.
A properly cooked corn tortilla has tiny bubbles on the surface, Waters points out. Details such as this are crucial to producing the end-product.
“If it isn’t right here, you can’t fry it right,” he adds.
After baking, the tortillas ride a 9-rack cooling conveyer to the counter-stacker. Although La Bonita Olé does sell branded corn tortillas, today’s product will be cut into either two, four (the most popular) or six pieces by a chopper for foodservice operators who fry their own chips. The pieces are tumbled so they don’t stick together before being weighed and bagged.
Traditional corn tortillas remain big business for many tortillerias. And soon, La Bonita Olé will begin grinding its own masa. A shiny new corn silo sits outside the plant, just waiting to be filled. Although it’s empty right now, Waters says, the silo will eventually hold 70,000 lb. of corn.
In addition, a special system will be used for the wastewater produced when the corn solids are separated. The corn will come in from the silo through a chute and cook in one of four tanks, each of which can process 1,200 lb. of corn using a boiler and food-grade steam, which requires half the BTUs of a gas burner, Waters says. The system will pump, wash and grind the corn before it is mixed into masa.
Mixing its own masa will be yet another attribute that makes La Bonita Olé stand apart from many of its competitors.
La Bonita Olé may be lean and mean, but the company still strives to be the leader of the pack when it comes to innovation. For instance, rather than using powder to flavor its flour products, the tortilla producer incorporates liquid ingredients into the dough.
In some cases, Waters points out, consumers wouldn’t know if they were eating a tomato-flavored tortilla unless they saw that it was red.
But “if you were blindfolded, you could tell the difference between La Bonita Olé’s products and those made with dry ingredients,” he asserts.
For example, the company’s Sun Dried Tomato and Savory Spinach varieties are made with liquid formulas containing actual chunks of vegetables and oils from the chilis that make them “just so much better than what’s out there,” Waters says.
What more could this growing tortilla producer offer?
Organic offerings, perhaps.
Although such products are under consideration, Waters understates that such a task is “not a job for an amateur.”
Not that there are any amateurs at La Bonita Olé. The company may be young, and its plant may be new, but momentum continues to build at the state-of-the-art production facility and headquarters that president and CEO Tammy Young plans to expand substantially to accommodate growth.
There may be no silver bullet for success, but La Bonita Olé is poised to jumpstart production when sales skyrocket down the road. SF&WB