“A year ago, this place was completely empty,” said Bob Solano, regional vice-president of Mission Foods, as he stood in the middle of the well-lit, spacious flour tortilla production bay in Mission Foods’ 135,000-sq-ft plant at Mountain Top, PA. As of early 2006, the facility runs 24/7 with three press (flour) tortilla lines, one die-cut line and two corn lines. Installation of a fried tortilla chip line is slated for later this year.

The newest facility on Mission Foods’ roster was a finished but completely empty building when the company acquired it in January 2005. Six intensely busy months later, the plant shipped its first market-ready tortillas. Total production should reach 60 to 65 million lb in the plant’s first full year of operation, according to Mr. Solano.

By taking advantage of new technology and laying out the facility for expansion, Mission Foods put onstream a showcase facility. “And we picked up a year or more because the building was done before we bought it,” Mr. Solano said.

“This is a really gorgeous plant!” he continued. In the past decade, he has been responsible for startup at three new facilities: Rancho Cucamonga, CA; Fife, WA; and now Mountain Top. “I thought each of the earlier plants was the best, but this one is even better,” he stated.

What makes it so is the company’s ability to continually raise its level of technology. Its vertically integrated parent company, Gruma S.A. de C.V., based at San Pedro Garza García (Monterrey), NL, Mexico, operates corn milling and equipment companies as well as tortilla manufacturers.

“Mission Foods is a leader in tortilla technology,” Mr. Solano said. “I am as proud of this approach as I was a decade ago with the Rancho Cucamonga facility. Mountain Top is a real state-of-the-art plant.”

VERTICAL INTEGRATION. Mountain Top joins 18 other US tortilla plants operated by Gruma Corp., the subsidiary that encompasses Mission Foods and Azteca Milling LP, all headquartered at Irving, TX. Azteca Milling now has five corn milling facilities in the US, while the parent company’s tortilla equipment concern, Tecnomaíz, operates a manufacturing plant in Mexico at Monterrey.

In 1949, Gruma (then known as Molinos Azteca) revolutionized the way tortillas were made at home and commercially with the introduction of Maseca brand “instant” corn flour. Gruma first entered US markets in 1977 establishing a Mission Foods tortilla plant at Canoga Park, CA (see Baking & Snack of February 1988, Page 6). Tecnomaíz began production of machinery for tortilla processing a year later, and in 1982, the company opened its first US corn flour mill at Edinburg, TX.

Canoga Park soon proved too small to contain Mission’s growing business, so the company replaced it and other smaller-capacity sites in Southern California with the huge Olympic Avenue plant at City of Commerce, CA (see Baking & Snack of September 1990, Page 6). The company’s Rancho Cucamonga plant qualified as the world’s largest tortilla factory when it opened in 1996 (see Baking & Snack of December 1996, Page 16). Both Olympic and Rancho Cucamonga now output more than 300 million lb of tortillas each annually.

Mountain Top wasn’t the only big project on Mission’s calendar during 2005. In June, the company acquired three tortilla plants at Phoenix, AZ; New Brighton, MN; and Fort Worth, TX, from CHS Foods, St. Paul, MN. Information systems, operating procedures and even processing technology all had to be brought into the Mission Foods scheme, according to Mr. Solano, who managed the integration of the former CHS Fort Worth facility while supervising startup at Mountain Top.

MISSION CRITICAL. “The idea of a Northeastern plant has been around for a number of years,” Mr. Solano said. Mission Foods tortillas have been sold in the region for some time now. The plant at Jefferson, GA, supplied food service clients, while starting in 2000, the Goldsboro, NC, facility produced for retail operators. As a market, the Northeast reflects the national trend that sees the consumption of Tex-Mex food products grow 25% per year. “Our business has been here a long time,” he continued, “but now we wanted to get closer to the market.”

Site selection efforts turned serious in 2004. Reportedly, Mission Foods looked at more than 20 communities in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, before settling on Pennsylvania’s Wright Township and the city of Mountain Top. There it found an 110,000-sq-ft, newly erected, flexible-use shell building located in Crestwood Industrial Park, a statedesignated Keystone Opportunity Zone.

“But the driving force was its proximity to our market area,” Mr. Solano said. The building is close to interstate highways, thus enabling distribution to stretch from Maine to Virginia.

When it was announced in January 2005, Mountain Top was described as a $33.9 million project. The state of Pennsylvania put together a financing package totaling $6.8 million that included $5.8 million in bank financing, a $465,000 opportunity grant and $500,000 in job training assistance. Two large ceremonial checks, presented to company president Jairo Senise at the closing, are mounted on an office wall at the plant, visible reminders of the commitments made by the state and the company.

A year later, the under-roof capacity of 110,000 sq ft has grown to 135,000 sq ft. Mission added a 25,000-sqft refrigerated warehouse that went into use in February 2006. The building can be expanded by another 15,000 sq ft to totally build-out the site. With six lines now, plans call for a total of seven press lines, one die-cut line, four corn lines and one fried chip line, in the near future.

Eberhard Lobeck, Mission Foods’ vice-president of engineering, managed the initial layouts for Mountain Top and advised on its commissioning. When Mr. Lobeck retired in November, his role in the project was assumed by Alfredo Blanco, who was named to replace him. Project engineer Bud Lung managed building prep, and layout and equipment aspects were handled by Adam Sachounni, project engineer. Mountain Top has yet to appoint a plant manager, so filling that role is Constantino (Tino) Flores, a technical advisor on Mr. Solano’s regional staff.

ADVANCING TECHNOLOGY. At Mission Foods, laying out a new plant is usually an occasion to try new technology. Mountain Top is no exception. “When you compare this plant to Rancho Cucamonga or Olympic, its processes and methods are the same, and the construction of the building is similar, but here we have some of the newest variations on available technology,” Mr. Solano said. And some pieces are getting their first full-scale application in the Mission Foods plant system.

“For example, we evaluate the press lines’ tortillas using automated optical inspection systems,” Mr. Solano explained.

Mission Foods engineers first saw the Dipix Technologies optical system at IBIE 2004. The company tested the method at its Jefferson plant and chose to fully implement it at Mountain Top.

Product consistency, particularly in size, is critical to the company’s food service clients, according to Mr. Solano. “Their portion control methods require it,” he explained. “Too large a tortilla means too much‘give away’at the restaurant, and too small would prompt customer complaints.”

Other advanced technologies deployed at Mountain Top include new generations of forming, baking and stacking equipment, controlled by computer. The lines use advanced electronic packages including Allen-Bradley PanelView Plus 1000 touch-screen terminals.

The majority of the processing equipment comes from Tecnomaíz. Mission Foods works closely with the engineers at this sister company. Among the results of such collaboration are the T-750 ovens, which operate cool to the touch on the exterior. Equipped with Flynn Burners, the ovens hold interior temperatures of 550 to 600°F with no temperature loss or hot spots.

The state of the art extends to sanitary design and operation, too. “You’ll notice that we did something here that improves overall sanitation. We installed all piping runs above the ceiling instead of in the production zones,” Mr. Solano said. “All you see are the vertical drops.”

Use of dusting flour is carefully controlled.“There’s generally nothing that falls to the floor,” Mr. Solano observed. “That’s what a first-class plant is supposed to look like.”

Lighting also fosters better sanitation and worker safety. “Lighting in the plant was laid out to be brighter than at other facilities,” he said. “During startup, the American Institute of Baking gave us an onsite training session, and its inspectors loved the facility.”

INTENSE TRAINING. Because of the pace of growth at Mission Foods, it had to hire locally for every position at Mountain Top. The company put together an intensive training program to fill the gap between a plant full of new equipment and a staff with no experience in making tortillas.

Before startup, the people hired for skilled positions as operators and mechanics received 160 hours of training. The company sent them to its Goldsboro and Jefferson plants for two weeks at a time to work with operators in those facilities who ran equipment similar to what was going into Mountain Top. Operators for the Rademaker line trained at Rancho Cucamonga where the company’s other such line is installed. “They would return for one weekend and then go back for another two weeks,” Mr. Solano explained.

Members of the quality assurance staff were also put through a similar 4-week schedule, while shipping and warehouse staff received 80 hours of offsite training. Training was done on a rotating basis to coordinate with the staged startup of the plant’s lines. The second and third generations of hires are receiving their training locally.

During actual startup, Mission Foods brought in teams from different locations to work with the trained Mountain Top operators and mechanics. Members of the packing crews were trained onsite by individuals from these startup teams. “We did the same thing when we opened the Fife plant by using staff and facilities at the McMinnville, OR, plant,” Mr. Solano said.“We discovered from that experience that startup teams were an excellent idea. Learning on a line that’s been running for years is different from simultaneously starting up and learning on a line that’s never been run.”

Ramp-up proceeded on an aggressive schedule. The first press line started testing products on June 6 and produced salable products by June 20. Products from the second line were on the market in mid-July. As each line came up, shifts were added one week at a time.

The tortilla plant currently has 160 employees with 85 of those in production roles. The company estimated that total employment could exceed 230 in three years. “There’s a good labor pool in the area,” Mr. Solano observed.“This is a community that has seen more than its share of job losses and manufacturing shut downs.” He expressed pride in being able to tell people hired for the Mountain Top facility about Mission Foods’ record of growth and its pattern of adding jobs and plant locations, rather than closing them.

SEPARATE ZONES. When laying out the plant, engineers followed the pattern of the Fife site establishing a long corridor between the 2-story office area and the food production and storage zones. The first floor houses offices for local managers,human resources and production managers. Employee facilities include a break room and locker rooms complete with shower facilities. The second floor is set up for visitor offices and conference and training rooms.

“There’s even an executive-style office here used by our owner when he visits,” Mr. Solano said. “At other plants, we found that having a designated training room was very valuable. It also serves as a meeting room for the production teams to use.”

As a security measure, the company put in a cardswipe system for entry to the building. The HR department was located next to the employee entrance deliberately, so staff could have convenient access to its services. “Benefits here are good,” Mr. Solano observed, noting that staff members wait only 90 days after being hired to enter the 401(k) program.

The quality assurance laboratory is also located along the corridor. The good-sized lab contains both refrigerated and ambient product retention rooms for measuring shelf life, and it is staffed on a 24-hour basis.

“Technology is changing the approach in the QA area, too,” Mr. Solano observed. For example, the Mountain Top staff works with handheld moisture monitors to measure results on-line.

This plant, like all Mission Foods facilities, has a HACCP program in place. The company’s efforts are managed by Lucy Gonzalez, vice-president of food safety, who reports directly to Guillermo Gonzalez, senior vicepresident of manufacturing.

“From a food safety and sanitation standpoint, we work hard to make sure our plants score above 900 on the AIB inspections, which are unannounced,” Mr. Solano said.“We didn’t have to make this plant as good as it is, but we did!”

Like all new plants, Mountain Top is concentrating on cutting its rejection rate. To encourage improvement in this important product quality variable, managers are running a “race to quality”program. One long wall in the corridor displays a multilane racetrack with moveable cars representing the teams responsible for each line and each shift. The cars are placed to indicate product placed on hold.

“It’s a race, but the focus is on product quality,” Mr. Solano explained.

Throughout the plant itself, “job aides” providing a visual product quality guide are posted on walls and work stations. These show the tortilla’s “body” and “face” and make note of the varying numbers of toast points and other qualities preferred by different customers.

IN AND OUT. Plant layout separates flour and corn tortilla production into two enclosed “shops” with cooling and packaging areas set up in tandem right behind them. Both shops were designed for expansion, with drains and utility drops already in place for more lines in each area. Building construction allows interior walls to be moved to accommodate additional lines.

Shipping is managed from an enclosed office that combines clerical support and dispatch operations. Raw materials on pallets are grouped in the open areas between the production bays and the new refrigerated storage room. A project later this year will add a 4- or 5-high rack storage system to handle these minor ingredients and packaging supplies.

A Reimelt computer-run ingredient system manages bulk ingredients. It encompasses three outdoor silos, each with a capacity of 150,000 lb. Two 70,000-lb tanks holding liquid shortening and fryer oil are located indoors because of weather considerations. A sifter room contains the systems that safeguard quality of wheat and corn flour stored in bulk. Minor ingredients are staged manually in a separate room. Operators assemble a “kit” of these ingredients for each batch.

On command from the mixer operator, wheat flour travels from the silo through the sifting room to a weigh hopper above each of three Peerless horizontal mixers. It drops into the mixer along with other bulk ingredients (liquid shortening and water), and the minors are added manually by the operator.

The finished dough is chunked out onto a conveyor feeding a Gemini Tewimat S divider/rounder. The dough balls fall through a floured zig-zag station into the intermediate proofer section of the Tecnomaíz press line. A few minutes later, the relaxed dough balls drop into the pressing section and are fed into the Tecnomaíz multipass oven. The technology for press lines allows peak rates of 2,000 doz tortillas per day.

“We designed the lines so that one logic center sends raw materials to whatever mixer calls out,” Mr. Solano said. A single operator display is placed between the three Technomaíz lines. Another layout choice was to provide space between lines for good access to all parts of the processing equipment.

“You’ll notice that the room remains at a comfortable 76°F, yet the ovens are running full speed,” Mr. Solano observed. The improved insulation of the ovens allows air-conditioning of the entire production zone, which helps assure consistent quality finished products.

The fourth line, a Rademaker system, is dedicated to manufacturing food service items. “And there should be two more lines running in here by year’s end,” Mr. Solano predicted.

Corn tortilla processing is similarly automated. The Reimelt system supplies dry corn masa flour to use bins above the two lines. From there, the flour is metered into each line’s Technomaíz hydrating screw mixer along with automatically supplied water. The resulting dough drops continually into the hopper above the line’s cutting roller. The die-cut corn tortillas speed out onto the mesh belt of the tortilla oven.

“You can see the footprint for the next two lines in here, each with a separate corn masa extruder, moulder and oven,” Mr. Solano pointed out. This room will also house the fried tortilla chip line.

COOL AND PACK. Like the processing operations, cooling and packaging operations for flour and corn tortillas are housed in separate rooms. A supervisor’s desk complete with a computer terminal sits in an opening between the two rooms.

Flour tortillas move by conveyor from the ovens through ports in the wall into enclosed coolers. They travel along spiral conveyors set inside insulated cooling chambers to emerge for inspection by the Dipix optical systems, one per line. The system examines each tortilla and displays the results on an attached terminal. Real-time statistics report size, toast points, color and other variables. The company plans to upgrade the optical systems with additional programming, so production room operators can also view running results. The optical system also removes tortillas that do not conform to standards.

“Optical sorting systems are great,” Mr. Solano said. “They do exactly what you tell them to.”

Corn tortillas cool on ambient systems, traveling back and forth as they traverse multiple tiers of conveyors. In the corn packaging room, the company installed a Stacker TT 2000 Gold Series automatic stacker that puts out six stacks of tortillas in a single lane.

Although flour and corn tortillas are stacked automatically, packaging line operators insert most varieties of stacked tortillas into bags by hand. “We are looking at automated technology, but the focus now is to improve the product uniformity, and manual bagging is an important control point for this effort,” Mr. Solano said.
The bagged tortillas travel through heat-sealing systems, over Hi-Speed checkweighers and through Safeway metal detectors. Videojet systems print code dates and other product information onto bags. The line feeds the packaged tortillas onto a rotating table where an operator picks them up and places the bags into a waiting shipping case.

Mission Foods continues to experiment with packaging methods, and the Mountain Top plant is no exception. For example, packaging of corn tortillas employs two “loops” — one manual running 96-count bags, one automatic with a Formost paddle bagger for smaller-count packs. Retail tortillas go into zipper packages allowing consumers to reseal the bag between meals. A Bosch bag sealer handles retail-packed flour tortillas, and a Kallfus Universal bagger handles food service tortillas. Case-packed tortillas are palletized and moved to the distribution area. Mountain Top’s production day starts at 6 a.m., and distributors pick up the finished tortillas starting at 3 a.m. the following morning. Thus, fresh products made one day are shipped the next. Even refrigerated products don’t stay on-site for very long, two days at most.

The new refrigerated warehouse uses a first-in/first-out system for its flow-through pallet racks, set four high by 13 deep. Additional racks handle orders assembled on a less-than-full-pallet-load basis and use two sections of 3-high-by-4-deep and four sections of 4-high-by-6-deep racking. The warehouse includes a refrigerated dock section for loading tractor-trailers rigs.

GROWTH PLANS. Completion of the refrigerated warehouse represents one more step forward for Mountain Top because it expands the plant’s ability to supply its food service customers. Eventually, 40% of the output from this facility will go to food service, while the other 60% will be branded fresh retail products. Among the corn lines already in operation is a new one dedicated to retail products, and two more such lines will be installed in the fall.

When fully populated and fully built-out, Mountain Top will run thirteen lines, according to Mr. Solano. “Then it will be time for another plant site search,” he said.