In the heart of the Corn Belt, a plant churns out millions of pounds of flour and corn tortillas, taco shells, pre-fried tortilla chips and flatbreads annually. While the Tyson Foods, Inc. name is synonymous with chicken, the Springdale, AR-based food conglomerate has been in the tortilla business nearly 30 years.

Tyson Mexican Original had a hunch that, to paraphrase Field of Dreams, “If we build it, they would come.” In 1995, it expanded its tortilla operations, opening a greenfield-built plant in Portland, IN. At startup, the facility showcased seven lines; only five ran most of the time and none were near full capacity, according to Richard Irvin, complex manager for Mexican Original. The 126,000-sq-ft plant, which included space for additional lines as its business grew, represents the company’s only facility built specifically for producing tortillas.

And come they did. Today, the plant has doubled its number of processing lines, and all 14 are nearing capacity. To sustain the level of growth it has experienced through the years, the Portland plant will most likely need to be physically expanded, and Mr. Irvin said the company has plans on the drawing board for that.

Expanding into the outfield

Because Portland was a greenfield project, Tyson Mexican Original designed the facility so it could be easily expanded in the future, according to Mr. Irvin. “We can go out there and pour pads and extend the building out on both the corn and flour sides, and we have plenty of land available to do that,” he said.

However, a more pressing need involves expanding the plant’s shipping and receiving areas to keep up with production capabilities, according to Dee Farra, plant manager. Even though a new parking lot for trailers was added last year, it’s not uncommon to see trucks lined up waiting because the distribution area has only six loading doors.

The plant mostly ships full truckloads. Some customers pick up their products at the plant, while others rely on Tyson transportation or outside carriers. Tyson also shuttles products to its distribution centers for customers who will be picking up only a pallet or two.

While many products are shelf-stable, the plant also makes items that are kept in the freezer, in the refrigerator or at ambient temperatures, depending on customers’ needs. Because on-site freezer space is limited, this Mexican Original’s facility stores frozen products at a warehouse in Fort Wayne, IN, approximately 50 miles north.

Hitting leadoff

Increasing and fluctuating commodity prices have presented the greatest challenges to the company in recent years, according to Mr. Irvin. To address these issues, Tyson Mexican Original worked diligently at improving the quality of products so its customers received better yields. “We spent money on micro-ingredient systems, training and people, automated equipment, and vision systems to do 100% quality checks,” he said.

The plant also recently installed an enterprise inventory management (EIM) program, as part of a companywide effort to accurately track products through its production and distribution processes. The program also improved its ability to trace, by key indicators such as supplier and batch number, all ingredients that are a part of a finished product.

As the second-largest US tortilla producer, Mexican Original has helped shape the fast-growing industrial tortilla processing business during the past couple of decades. In the first five minutes of Baking & Snack’s recent interview, Mr. Irvin said, “It’s been fun,” three times while explaining his roles within the company over the past several decades.

After serving as a quality assurance manager for his first year with Mexican Original, Mr. Irvin, whose degree is in industrial engineering, was promoted to project manager. In this position, he helped automate much of the production at the Fayetteville, AR, plant, which the company acquired when it purchased the Dallas, TX-based Mexican Original, Inc. in 1983. “I kind of joke about it, but we have half the people and produce three times as much product today as we did back then,” he added.

Because of Mr. Irvin’s work automating operations at the plant, he said, “The people in charge at the time said, ‘You did all this; now you’re in charge of the plant.’ So I became plant manager in Fayetteville, and I have actually been plant manager at all three of our locations at one time or another.”

In addition to Fayetteville and Portland, in 1991, Mexican Original expanded its tortilla operations to Sanford, NC.

In 1999, Mr. Irvin became complex manager, a position that requires him to oversee operations at all of the Mexican Original facilities. “I don’t think I’m promotable past this point,” he said with a chuckle.

However, truth be told, Mr. Irvin is probably too valuable to the tortilla operations to move to another division. “I love the business that we are in and what we are doing,” he added. “I enjoy the operations, and it’s been fun because it’s a growing business. I have been able to be part of the growth, not only with our business, but the tortilla industry as a whole.

“And I still see lots of opportunities for our industry,” Mr. Irvin continued. “I like that the industrialization of tortillas is relatively new.”

Consequently, tortilla manufacturing technology continues to evolve. Although Mexican Original buys its equipment from a variety of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), it modifies these systems to meet its specific needs, which sets the company apart from its competitors.

“We have used a lot of this equipment for years, and we have a very thorough understanding of it and the processes available,” he said. “No matter the issue, we have programs in place to make our products better. We make the equipment fit our needs.”

Growing its own talent

Jon Blankenship, the Portland plant’s quality assurance manager, helped develop thorough training programs for Mexican Original. He started in sanitation at the plant 17 years ago and has since risen through the ranks. Mr. Irvin pointed out that Mr. Blankenship is “one of the foremost experts on how to make tacos and corn items.”

The company’s people set it apart from others in the industry, according to Ms. Farra, who has worked at the Portland plant almost since its beginning, starting 16 years ago as a shift supervisor in shipping and receiving. A few years later, she took over the logistics department and then moved to production as shift manager, having had previous processing experience. Then seven years ago, she applied for the plant manager position.

Ms. Farra replaced Mr. Irvin, who had been filling in as plant manager in Portland as well as serving as complex manager.

“At Tyson, we pretty much promote from within,” Mr. Irvin said. “Because there are not that many tortillerias around especially of our size, where do you find someone with experience? It’s almost like you have to grow your own talent.”

While the Portland plant built its leadership team internally, Ms. Farra said she also had many resources within Mexican Original such as Mr. Irvin and the plant managers at its other tortilla facilities. “We all pull together for the same results,” she said. “We don’t pull against each other. We definitely pull together throughout the organization.”

Because Mexican Original grows talent from within, its employees have a broad base of knowledge about the company’s operations and equipment. “I don’t think you will find our level of experience in a lot of tortilla plants,” Mr. Irvin said.

By pulling together, Mexican Original’s three tortilla plants also can best serve large national accounts. “A lot of companies have one or two lines; we have 31 tortilla press lines,” Mr. Irvin said. “If you want to go to one company and get a product that is going to be the same across your entire system, there are only a couple of us of this size and magnitude that can service a national account like we can.”

To ensure products from its three tortilla facilities have similar qualities, Mexican Original performs regular cuttings where it compares and evaluates products from each of the plants, Mr. Irvin said.

Production bases loaded

With 14 lines, the Portland plant’s processing space, which covers approximately 33,000 sq ft, leaves little room to swing a bat. A maintenance shop splits processing into two distinct areas — one for producing flour tortillas, wraps and flatbreads and another for making corn products such as baked and pre-fried chips, as well as tortillas and taco shells.

A J.C. Ford baked corn tortilla system installed less than two years ago is the plant’s newest complete line. It includes a presheeter, sheeter, oven, cooling conveyor and stacker.

This side also features three Heat and Control taco shell lines, equipped with sheeters, die cutters, ovens and fryers. At the end of each line, a plant-designed aligner conveyor races shells lifted from the fryer down the metal slides to the packaging area. Automated conveyors stack and count the shells that are then hand-packed into corrugated boxes. Overall, the plant has nine packaging lines and nearly 16,000 sq ft dedicated to packaging operations.

Since Baking & Snack’s visit to the Portland plant in mid-May, Mexican Original added seasoning capabilities to two of the taco shell lines. It previously installed similar technology during a $7 million renovation at its Fayetteville plant completed earlier this year that included two new taco shell lines with seasoning capabilities.

The company partnered with a large quick-service restaurant chain to develop these products, and confidentiality agreements forbid them from making similar taco shells for other customers, according to Mr. Irvin.

Two silos store corn masa used for these lines, and a soybean oil silo supplies the fryers. Peerless and JC Ford masa mixers and dough feeders prepare the corn-based doughs and deliver them to the makeup equipment.

Also on the corn side, the company uses a Pfening whole corn handling system as well as a Pfening masa delivery system.

A Casa Herrera baked chip line includes a sheeter, oven and cooling conveyors, and a Matrix bagger packages the finished chips.

While the corn side boasts six lines total, seven Lawrence Equipment press lines — including intermediate proofers, presses, ovens and cooling conveyors — produce a variety of flour tortillas and wraps that range in size, variety and flavor.

Four flour silos and two shortening silos store bulk ingredients used on this side of the plant, and two Pfening flour handling systems with Prather sifters deliver the flour to the mixers. ShickUSA, Zeppelin Systems and CPM Beta Raven micro and minor ingredient systems accurately supply additional ingredients to the mixers. Peerless horizontal mixers and Diosna spiral mixers prepare its flour doughs.

Also on the flour side, a Rykaart flatbread line makes the plant’s only yeast-raised products. The die-cut dough pieces travel via a conveyor belt through a final proofer for about 16 minutes before baking. The line, installed 15 years ago at the plant, is Mexican Original’s only yeast-raised flatbread line.

Ayash Engineering and Seepex dough pumps deliver dough to flour tortilla lines, and Werner & Pfleiderer dough dividers/rounders, supplied by Gemini Bakery Equipment and Lawrence Equipment, feed dough balls to the intermediate proofers on the press lines.

To ensure the quality of its flour tortillas and flatbreads, the Portland plant relies on Dipix and Lawrence vision systems to inspect and reject out-of-spec products on all lines. Ceia and Goring Kerr metal detectors also are employed along packaging lines for quality assurances purposes.

Lawrence and Arr-Tech counter/stackers collate products as they move to packaging. Three Formost Fuji wrappers as well as Hartmann, Saxxon and UBE baggers package the flour tortillas and flatbreads.

R&D make the play

The Portland plant manufactures around 85 product codes, slightly more than the Sanford Mexican Original facility yet significantly less than the company’s Fayetteville operation, which produces several hundred different products.

During Baking & Snack’s plant visit, the company was working with a customer on a new spinach-flavored wrap. While this product was destined for the retail channel, the majority of Mexican Original’s products end up in food service. Although the company serves as a contract manufacturer for its customers, it features an active R&D team that develops bench-top products as options.

However, Mexican Original performs its due diligence before scaling up production. “So much detail goes into a new product, and we make sure everything is right before we launch it,” Mr. Irvin said.

In many ways, Mexican Original continues to set new standards. For example, the plant received British Retail Consortium Global Standard for food safety certification through a Global Food Safety Initiative-recognized audit. The rigorous 3-day audit covers a variety of subjects including the company’s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program, factory environment, process and product controls, and quality management system.

While the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law last year will require many bakeries to implement HACCP-like plans, Mexican Original launched HACCP programs nearly a decade ago at its tortilla facilities. “Because we are part of a large protein company, we do a lot of testing from a micro pathogen perspective typical of USDA-inspected plants that a lot of bakeries don’t do,” Mr. Blankenship said.

If Mexican Original expands this field of dreams, will new business continue to come? That is a question the company will have to consider as it moves forward. Although no official plans have been announced, Mexican Original’s leaders suggested that to keep up with future growth the Portland plant will require additional space for manufacturing. Perhaps they are hearing a voice from the adjacent cornfields, urging them to “go the distance.”