Freshness attracts attention in today’s baking industry. It communicates the quintessential ideal of product quality and enjoyment. It’s essential to the success of any bakery product.
Refrigeration is a key method of preserving freshness—particularly for foods free from artificial preservatives. And refrigeration becomes a strong strategic point of differentiation in a category like tortillas, where the vast majority of products are sold in the center of the store.
The perimeter of the store is where consumers seek fresh, refrigerated foods, and that’s where they’ll find the tortillas from Azteca Foods, Inc., a Chicago-based, fourth-generation family bakery that’s celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020. The company sells its refrigerated tortillas and other products at retailers across the country, as well as to a variety of foodservice customers.
And while its tortillas, salad shells, and other products have been core staples for its devoted consumer following for decades, Azteca Foods continues to innovate with an eye clearly focused on future growth.
From Pilsen to the nation
Azteca Foods—originally named Azteca Corn Products—got its start in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhood of Chicago in the 1960s. Its founding mission was to help improve the neighborhood through economic investment and job creation while providing a business example for others to follow.
The original 10 founding investors were all members of the Azteca Lions Club, notes Arthur “Art” Velasquez, chairman, Azteca Foods. They were dedicated to creating a business that would improve economic development for the inner city. “The club was founded in 1967, chartered by Lions International, a worldwide service organization, to dedicate its mission to serve the community of Pilsen and Little Village in Chicago,” he says.
The Azteca Lions Club’s founding chairman was Art Velasquez’s father, Arturo Velasquez, a Mexican immigrant and owner of Velasquez Automatic Music Co. He had migrated to the U.S. as a child with his parents who initially worked the sugar beet fields of the Dakotas. The family moved to Gary, IN to work in the steel mills, and then to Chicago in the mid-1930s. Arturo married to Soledad “Shirley” Lozano in 1937.
Arturo Velasquez and other neighborhood leaders sought to improve their community. “The membership was initially comprised of approximately 70 members, most of whom were small business owners in the Pilsen and Little Village community interested in improving the quality of life for the mostly Mexican immigrant population,” says Art. The name of the Azteca Lions Club refers to the Aztec people, a primary indigenous population of Mexico who grew corn for its tortillas, an everyday dietary staple.
The members of the Azteca Lions Club wanted to create a business enterprise that could sell its products outside of the community, thereby bringing in money back to the community to support jobs and local businesses, and become a model for others to follow, notes Art. “The result was the idea to manufacture tortillas for the outside general market, where the supermarkets and foodservice operators did not have a reliable source for, or even the knowledge of, Mexican food products otherwise available only in small, inner city shops.”
So 10 members of the Azteca Lions Club pooled their resources and agreed to each invest $10,000 to start the business. The members asked Art, who had recently graduated from the MBA program at the University of Chicago, to put together a business plan. He and Hector Gonzalez, who became the first manager of Azteca, then flew to California to purchase used equipment. The business, located at 4850 S. Austin Avenue in Chicago, was incorporated in 1970 on a shoestring budget. In fact, Joanne Velasquez, Art’s wife, worked the entire first year without pay.
Later that year, Azteca company leadership met with a food science consultant who helped develop a formula that yielded tortillas with a six-week refrigerated shelf life, opening up the possibility of more-widespread retail distribution. “This was a breakthrough, and Azteca tortillas were the first in the market available refrigerated with shelf life to support the product,” says Art. “Another fortunate meeting with a retail food broker provided the basis for warehouse distribution to supermarkets in Chicago and surrounding states. Azteca was then fortunate to engage a chain food broker to expand to approximately 20 states, in the Midwest and Southeast.”
Expansion and acquisition
Azteca Foods saw steady growth throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. Then, in 1984, a new opportunity arose. “In 1984, the company was sold to Pillsbury,” says Art. “The incentive was for Azteca to become a national Mexican food company by having an expanded product line, a national presence in the refrigerated section, the total professional staff, and—importantly—the capital to expand manufacturing.”
However, British conglomerate Grand Metropolitan purchased Pillsbury in 1989 and divested all of its manufacturing businesses. So, the Velasquez family, together with the Robert Cohn family, purchased Azteca Foods back from Pillsbury in 1989.
This was an important step in the growth of Azteca Foods. During the period of Pillsbury ownership, they invested in product development, expanded manufacturing capabilities, installed sophisticated food processing standards, and adopted strong management and financial procedures, notes Art. But they still maintained a sense of community—a closeness to employees, customers, and the community, says Art. “As a result, Azteca became a much better company.”
Then, in 1999, an opportunity arose to enter into a joint venture to start a company named Azteca de Maiz in Madrid, Spain to manufacture products for Spain and across Europe. “Like the original Azteca startup, we purchased used equipment, leveraged our capital, and established a product that eventually was distributed throughout Europe in eight languages,” says Art. “We built a new plant, purchased the most-sophisticated equipment at the time, and grew to a point where it made sense for Azteca Foods Europe to sell in 2015, as our family was rooted in the U.S.”
Again, this brought new perspectives and experience, thereby building company strength.
Azteca Foods today
Today, the product range at Azteca Foods includes ready-to-bake salad shells, corn and flour tortillas, tortilla chips, and crispy taco shells.
Azteca products are still found mainly in the Midwest and Southeast, with select distribution across the country. “We rely on both direct sales and brokers,” says Julie Mayer, vice president marketing and innovation. “We can be found at top retailers and smaller independents.”
Azteca products can be found in multiple markets under a variety of brands, including Baja, La Fronteriza, and Mariachi, as well as under retailers’ private brands. Distribution spans retail, foodservice, and industrial channels, says Julie.
“Our signature line is our Original Thin Soft & Tender Tortillas,” says Julie. “These are thinner tortillas that have no preservatives. We offer them in three sizes and are best for Mexican lasagnas, enchiladas, and quesadillas. We offer thicker tortillas under our Homestyle name, which are great burrito-stuffing tortillas. Our Crispy & Flaky Salad Shell provides restaurant-style crispness in a bowl that you bake, not fry.”
The Crispy & Flaky Salad Shell has been a sweet spot for Azteca Foods for many years. “Our Crispy and Flaky Salad Shell has been a customer favorite since the early 1980s,” says Julie. “There is no other product that compares.”
For 2020, Azteca Foods launched a new Crispy Taco Shell. “This is a ready-to-bake crispy and flaky flour shell that can be molded into a variety of shapes with the included formers,” says Julie. “You can bake tacos, bowls, and tostadas. It’s a great way to add ‘crunch’ to meals.” The company is also in the process of releasing a new line of empanadas.
Better-for-you products have also factored into the product mix at Azteca Foods. “We have developed products that satisfy the need for no preservatives, low sodium, and low carb, to name a few,” says Julie. The range of tortillas includes a whole-wheat version made with Ultragrain flour.
Azteca Foods operates three bakeries in the Midwest, including its primary facility in Chicago. “We have 125,000 square feet of production and distribution space in Chicago, with a variety of production lines,” says Pat Sharrar, vice president of operations. “We are able to offer both pressed and die-cut flour tortillas, with lines dedicated to each type. We also produce corn tortillas and tortilla chips.”
Pat notes that Azteca Foods is always looking for ways to modernize its production and help its employees be more efficient and effective through technology and advances in equipment design. “We recently implemented Redzone, which improved our efficiencies and cross-department communications,” he says. The Redzone digital production system helps manufacturers improve plant efficiency, optimizing operations for better throughput.
Personnel also have opportunities for continuous improvement. “Employees are encouraged to learn new skills and be cross-functionally trained on all of our production lines,” says Renee Togher, president and CEO. “Cross-training is important, as it not only improves scheduling flexibility, it is a catalyst for employee advancement. It is our goal to promote from within where possible. We have had some employees who started as general laborers become supervisors, and supervisors become managers. We even had an employee who started at Azteca when he was a teenager eventually become the vice president of operations.”
The tortilla industry has seen considerable changes over the past 50 years since Azteca Foods got its start. “It was originally mom-and-pop local Mexican American neighborhood back-of-store owner-operators, where local independent distributors purchased product in cash and made their route deliveries at 5:00 in the morning to local stores where workers and restaurants demanded warm tortillas made daily and consumed daily,” reminisces Art. “It was a seven-days-a-week overnight bakery business.”
Within the first decade of operation, though, distribution models began changing. “During the 1970s, supermarkets began to accept refrigerated warehouse deliveries, ordering weekly,” recalls Art. “Mexican restaurants began to be established in outer city areas, then the suburbs. This attracted sophisticated operators, chains like Taco Bell, and others. Acceptance of Mexican food grew rapidly and required supply solutions to meet demand.”
This industry growth also dictated a need for an association for support. “In 1989, myself and five others, including two equipment suppliers and two other tortilla manufacturers, established the Tortilla Industry Association to bring together industry participants to promote the exploding possibilities of tortilla products,” says Art. “The tortilla industry has grown to become a multi-billion dollar industry and is still growing as new innovative ways to use tortilla products and integrate the tortilla with other ethnic dishes drive the growth.”
Today, tortillas have become a staple in America, says Renee. “Tortillas have evolved from being served mainly as part of a traditional Mexican meal to being used across many different ethnic cuisines,” she says. “With their variety of uses, tortillas have moved from being traditionally served at dinnertime to any time of the day—including breakfast, lunch, and snack time.”
Tortilla offerings have also expanded beyond traditional flour and corn options to include different grains, flavors, and health benefits, notes Renee. “Tortillas have seen explosive growth, not only in the consumer’s home, but in all channels of distribution—QSR, grab-and-go, etc. The possibilities are endless when it comes to tortillas.”
An ongoing legacy
Azteca Foods has been ingrained into its surrounding community from the start. “Chicago was the perfect place to incubate the Azteca tortilla business,” says Art. Pilsen and Little Village is a mosaic immigrant neighborhood, with legacies built from generation to generation by new arrivals, such as the Mexican Americans—a diverse community that was thriving by the 1970s. “The Pilsen and Little Village area became a vibrant community that brought rich Mexican culture, including popular foods, art, family values, and the coming together of small business owners and their families to constantly reach for improvements—to improve the quality of the lives of the new immigrant families,” he says.
“We truly believe in our mission to ‘Bring Sunshine into People’s lives,’ not only when it comes to our products, but in helping our communities become better places to live,” says Renee. “As a company, we volunteer our time to various organizations—for example, serving food at the local soup kitchen, walking for hunger to support the local food depository, raising funds for a cancer cure, or working with students to help them achieve their academic goals.”
These values, modeled by community leaders, pass from generation to generation. “As our children grew up, the biggest thing we did not realize, both as company owners and parents, was what our children were experiencing,” says Joanne Velasquez, vice-chair. “Now they are going out, and they have their own organizations they support.” They are carrying these values, so lovingly cultivated through the decades.
“The biggest thing my parents taught me was to be an independent thinker, to fulfill my aspirations—but to also help others,” says Nannette Zander, vice president IT.
“The family’s commitment to the community has inspired me in my life,” says Connor Togher. “You hear of organizations giving back, but I have actually seen my family give back continuously. It is just a part of who they are.”
This is a year for reflection. “As we entered our 50th year, we started reflecting on who we are today and how we got here,” says Art. “We are both grateful and humbled in knowing that a lot of it was just being in the right place at the right time—as well as never passing by an opportunity to talk to people and listen. Our opportunity in Spain was a great example of coming together to really just meet and talk.”
This anniversary milestone is also an opportunity for gratitude. “We are taking the time to celebrate internally, thanking our employees first,” says Art. “Without them, we would not function. Our employees are like our family. Some have been with us since the very beginning. It is inspiring to see such pride and dedication. We’re letting everyone who has helped us know that we are grateful and appreciate their contributions that made Azteca what it is today.”
The community unity that inspired the creation of Azteca Foods continues. “We want to have people feel inspired when they hear our name, Azteca, or see our Azteca sun logo, because they have witnessed us living out our mission,” says Renee. “We hope to provide the best food products to our consumers while continuing to evolve in a way that inspires our employees, customers, and supplier partners to build on our successes to help make our communities, and ultimately the world, a better place.”
Azteca Foods has become a living legacy. “I have been working at Azteca since high school,” says Kevin Togher. “When you asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I said I wanted to work at Azteca. I hope to continue to be able to supply good-quality tortillas and be an example of the DNA of the organization, to take us through the next 50 years.”
AT A GLANCE
Company: Azteca Foods, Inc.
Plant size: 125,000 square feet
Number of employees: 150
Products: Tortillas, salad shells, crispy taco shells, tortilla chips
Brands: Azteca, Baja by Azteca, Mi Mama’s, La Fronteriza, Mariachi
Chairman: Arthur Velasquez
Vice-Chair: Joanne Velasquez
President and CEO: Renee Togher
Vice President Finance: Jeff Olson
Vice President Retail Sales: Julie Forbes
Vice President Food Service Sales: Chris Fauser
Vice President Operations: Pat Sharrar
Vice President IT: Nannette Zander
Vice President Marketing and Innovation: Julie Mayer
Director of Operations: Jim Togher