Azteca Foods’ customer focus drives continuous improvement. And, with an emphasis on marketing and consumer involvement, Azteca Foods thrives on new menu ideas and product line extensions.
Chicago-based Azteca Foods, founded by Arthur Velasquez and nine other Mexican-American businessmen and members of the Azteca Lions Club in 1970, takes pride in its heritage and has worked toward creating a highly recognizable brand of refrigerated tortillas. Although the company has been through changes in ownership since its inception, the Velasquez family maintains complete ownership today.
Azteca Foods produces a full line of tortillas, including corn, die-cut flour, pressed flour, salad shell and a healthful line under the Buena Vida label. Currently, the Buena Vida line offers low-carb, whole grain, fat-free and organic tortillas. “We are the number one brand of refrigerated tortillas in the country, and that is our focus,” says Renee Togher, president. “We're also the only company that makes die-cut for retail, and that's important for us as well.” Die-cut are reportedly more similar to hand-streteched tortillas.
Currently, about 70 percent of the company's business is retail, most of which is sold refrigerated. The remaining 30 percent is sold to foodservice. Its foodservice business is split relatively evenly between frozen and ambient. Azteca's ambient, or shelf stable line, with a shelf life of 120 days, is produced under the Baja label.
Building a brand
As the only one of the original owners who had a business degree, Velasquez was placed in charge of the company at its inception. Joanne Velasquez, Arthur's wife and Renee Togher's mother, also became involved in the company early on. “They were the first to [indicate] shelf life on tortillas and sell them refrigerated — mainly to non-Hispanics,” Togher says. Once the company established a shelf life for its refrigerated tortillas, we started to sell them to grocery stores. “That was the beginning of the Azteca brand,” she adds.
In 1984, Azteca was sold to Pillsbury. At that time, the company operated two facilities — its current location and another one about a mile away. “Pillsbury had developed some patents and brought in new equipment,” Togher says. “Pillsbury tested a new line of products. One of the products was the salad shell that we still sell today. We had a patent on it for years. Now, there are a couple of companies that are trying to produce the same thing, but the quality just isn't there.”
Pillsbury owned Azteca for five years, but after Grand Metropolitan PLC, United Kingdom, purchased Pillsbury, it decided to divest all the ethnic-type companies it wasn't interested in. “I don't think my mother and father ever got it out of their system,” Togher says. “When they had an opportunity to buy the company back, they jumped at it, and that was in 1989. At that time, there were some other investors, but now the family has complete ownership.”
Before Pillsbury entered the picture, Azteca only made tortilla chips at its current facility, while tortillas were made at its other facility, but it has expanded significantly since that time by adding a corn room, a die-cut room, a press room and cooler space. Management is now investigating expansion plans.
Focus groups revealed that many of Azteca's customers prefer die-cut versus pressed tortillas. Then there are those who prefer die-cut for certain uses. While consumers might not necessarily call a tortilla “die-cut” or “pressed,” they call them “thicker” or “thinner,” or other similar terms.
“It amazed me during our last focus group that some people used our pressed for certain things and die-cut for others,” Togher says. “I thought they'd have a preference for one type or the other. But, even in my own family, I have one son who likes the die-cut and one who likes the pressed.”
Although the tortillas have similar uses, some prefer pressed for overstuffed tacos, while others prefer die-cut in enchiladas or similar casserole-type recipes, Togher adds. Die-cut perform better in some applications because they're not as thick and chewy.
Azteca has five die-cut lines, two of which are used for tortilla chip production. Each line produces about 3,000 lb. of finished product per hour. Three of the lines run 24 hours per day, five days a week, while the others run 16 hours per day.
In the die-cut tortilla room, smaller quantity ingredients are measured into a minor ingredients system, while bulk ingredients are automatically fed into a mixer to produce 1,000-lb. batches for each of the three lines. Each line is capable of producing 3,000 lb. per hour, notes Jim DeCoste, vice president of operations.
As dough is sheeted and conveyed through cross rollers, it spreads and becomes thinner. Another set of gauge rollers makes the dough slightly thinner and wider. A second set of cross rollers works the dough in all directions, followed by a final set of gauge rollers that sets the dough to its final thickness, DeCoste explains.
Sheeted dough passes beneath the die-cutter and is conveyed into a three-pass gas-fired oven for 28 seconds. Trim is automatically returned for rework. Tortillas exit the oven and flow to automatic counter/stackers, and through form/fill and sealing equipment. During Azteca's forming and filling process, a recloseable feature is added to the bag all in one step.
Finished product is conveyed to a spiral cooler where the product temperature is brought below 70°F. It is then case packed, robotic palletized and stored in a finished goods cooler that is 18,000 sq. ft., 34 ft. high and capable of storing a full week's supply of palletized product.
“Pressed tortillas are pretty much what everybody produces in the industry,” DeCoste says. Although the two types of tortillas have different uses, the capital investment required for pressed is probably less, he adds.
Azteca's press room was built three years ago. It has two pressed tortilla lines that produce about 3,000 lb. per hour. Dough batches, in 500-lb. quantities, are mixed and deposited as dough balls, which are proofed for about 10 minutes. Dough balls pass through a pre-press, are tapped a little to prevent them from rolling, and then pass through a heated hydraulic press targeting a certain diameter.
“A vision system adjusts the pressure of the press automatically, depending on the diameter,” DeCoste says.
Tortillas enter a three-pass gas-fired oven for 30 to 35 seconds, and are conveyed into a 13-tier cooling conveyor for about two minutes, which prevents the product from sticking. Product then passes through another vision system that measures and records various quality parameters, such as diameter, toast points, and whether any holes or squared edges are present. All finished product is conveyed through a counter/stacker and packaged.
Every product, regardless of how it is produced, is checkweighed and scanned through metal detectors. The company places great emphasis on quality control, automation and energy savings. “Vision systems have helped improve quality control,” DeCoste says. Packaging lines' automation has driven productivity up, and automated ingredient handling has produced more accurate measurements, which most importantly, improves quality.”
All food waste, plastic and cardboard are recycled, and all lighting fixtures were upgraded two years ago to be more energy efficient.
When a company, such as Azteca Foods, has a solid, reputable brand name, it stands to reason it can capitalize on that strength by branching out into other related markets. “Our brand is very strong,” Togher says. “That is the one thing we decided to do a little bit more with. We see our future growth in items that aren't exclusive to tortillas.”
Currently, the company has a new product line in test market that incorporates other items, such as meats, sides, sauces and salsas, along with tortillas. The complete line of fresh, premium, refrigerated Mexican meal components will be sold in the dairy case, where consumers are accustomed to finding Azteca's signature tortillas — a clever marketing ploy on the part of the company.
“What we're most proud of is that Azteca Foods is a family business. We have long-term employees and consider everybody family. And we take pride in our brand,” Togher says. “A lot of companies don't market their brand, but we try and focus heavily on that. I think we probably do more than most. We really try and involve the consumer in new ideas for usage.”
Azteca Foods spends a lot of time talking to its customers. The company has included in-pack recipes for 10 years. Recipes also can be found in consumer magazines. This year, Azteca started doing online recipes with www.allrecipes.com and the Food Network, and will continue to provide consumers with menu ideas.
As the company forges into new markets, it rides high on the strength and recognition of its tortilla brand.
Web site: www.aztecafoods.com
Management: Arthur Velasquez, chairman; Joanne Velasquez, vice chairman; Renee Togher, president; Joe Rabaglia, vice president, retail marketing and sales; Barb Riegler, brand development manager; Dottie Pigozzo, vice president, human resources; Art Velasquez II, vice president, foodservice; Bob White; director, foodservice; Joe Klomes, vice president, finance; Nannette Zander, vice president, information technology; Jim DeCoste, vice president, operations; Joe Lesniak, manufacturing manager; George Chamraz, quality assurance manager; David Shoemaker, director of continuous improvement; and Jim Togher, director of purchasing.
Product lines: A full line of tortillas, including corn, die-cut flour, pressed flour, salad shell, a healthful line under the Buena Vida label; a shelf stable line under the Baja label, and tortilla chips
Plant size: 140,000 sq. ft.
Production lines: Five die-cut lines — two for tortilla chips and three for tortilla production; two pressed tortilla lines
Throughput: About 50 million lb. of tortillas and 20 million lb. of tortilla chips
Number of employees: About 150 employees