It might be a coincidence that Albuquerque Tortilla Co. Inc.’s new prepared foods plant extension gives the company’s headquarters a horseshoe shape. Then again, this is the land of cowboys and frontiersman. And what better symbol is there for being authentic and independent than horses, cowboys and the Old West? 

At Albuquerque Tortilla Co.'s new prepared foods plant, a system is used to pump masa (corn), meat and chile fillings into tamale husks.

photo courtesy of Albuquerque Tortilla Co.

It might be a coincidence that Albuquerque Tortilla Co. Inc.’s new prepared foods plant extension gives the company’s headquarters a horseshoe shape. Then again, this is the land of cowboys and frontiersman. And what better symbol is there for being authentic and independent than horses, cowboys and the Old West? And words like these - independent and authentic - aptly describe this family-owned Mexican food processor.

Since 1987, the Albuquerque, N.M., company has carved its own path, eschewing artificial ingredients and fillers in favor of its own traditional family recipes.

“Our name is synonymous with New Mexican foods,” says Chris Martinez, vice president of sales and marketing. “Our food is the real deal. We don’t use any fillers - all of our Albuquerque Tortilla Co. brand name products are made with 100-percent beef, pork, chicken and cheese. We also use world famous Hatch chiles in most of our recipes giving us that unique New Mexican flavor.”

The formula has proved to be a successful one. Albuquerque has outgrown several processing plants over the years as sales have blossomed to $24 million annually. The company processes everything from industrial ingredients such as salsa and peppers, to fresh corn and flour tortillas, to frozen entrees including burritos and tamales. Executives say frozen products account for 35 percent of sales, while overall sales breakdown about 70 percent/30 percent between retail and foodservice.

Robin Martinez, price coordinating manager, holds Albuquerque Tortilla Co.'s best-selling prepared food product -- tamales.

photo by Vito Palmisano

Corralling space and supplies

While the company’s recent growth is impressive, Albuquerque executives are not ones to rest on their laurels. Chris, his father Luther, company president, and his uncle Pete, vice president of operations, expect to see even more growth. And leading the way is a new 85,000-square-foot prepared foods plant attached to Albuquerque’s 104,000-square-foot corn and flour tortilla bakery.

All equipment on the prepared foods side was “brand spanking new” when the company completed its build-out last year, Chris says. He adds that the company invested about $14 million in the plant development and equipment including a tamale line, a burrito line, a pouch line for institutional sauces and seasoned meats, and a tray line for frozen meals. Prior to the expansion, products such as the company’s taquitos, burritos, chile rellenos and enchiladas were made by hand.

Today, the plant features fully-automated state-of-the-art equipment and is USDA-certified. Food safety and training systems are in place and the plant is HAACP-compliant as well as subjected to third-party audits by Costco and the U.S. Army.

Still, Chris admits, getting the plant up and running was no easy task. First, the company had to find the space on its plot outside downtown Albuquerque. The U-shaped design was borne of necessity and now the company occupies “every square inch” of it, he adds.

Meanwhile, executives met another challenge in seeking out equipment to handle the company’s authentic New Mexican ingredients.

“We had to do lots of research on pieces of equipment and how they work and how they’ll be able to handle our foods,” Chris explains. “We’re using 100-percent pork or beef and 100-percent real cheese and we had to come up with machines that would handle larger particles.

”It was a lot of trial and error. We would ship our foods to Boston, to one of the companies we used, and we would follow the food out there. We would run it through their equipment and see what kind of results we got.”

Hitting its stride

The Martinez clan’s research and hard work paid off. The plant now processes about 45 total line items in addition to a small co-packing business.

“We’re probably shipping at $6 million a year,” Chris says. “And we’re looking at that as it’s constantly growing because now we have the capacity and the capabilities to manufacture and distribute this product around the country.”

In fact, Albuquerque now produces enough product to stock its on-site 25,000-square-foot freezer.

“It’s one of the largest in our state,” he says. “Before, the way we operated was we basically manufactured to order. Now we’re manufacturing to stock our freezer and we ship out of there.”

Not that product stays there long. The company is finding its prepared foods business growing quickly and executives only expect to ramp up production and sales.

“Prepared foods seem to be the biggest growth category for [us],” Pete says. “With most households being supported by two or more there is less time to spend giving your family a home-cooked meal.”

Adds Chris, “The goals are to continue to expand the product line. To keep offering quality products and keep up with the market.”

Already delivering on this promise, Albuquerque launched its frozen burrito line this fall and is working on healthier formulations for a future product line.

The new plant extension and the added convenience of having an immediate supply of freshly-made tortillas, makes R&D all the easier, Chris says. Albuquerque’s signature tortillas, which feature unique ‘burn marks’ and silky texture, are made on the other side of the plant [see sidebar “Branding techniques” for more on Albuquerque’s tortillas].

“Basically, we run whatever is needed for that day’s run in the prepared foods side in the bakery,” he explains. “The tortillas are run and they are shipped immediately, fresh to the other side of the building to make them ‘value-added.’ It’s pretty neat to have it all under one roof.”

Wide open spaces

Most importantly, Albuquerque executives finally feel like they really do have room to grow.

“We finally built a plant that we feel has some capacity,” Chris says. “I think that through our distribution channels and our networks that we’ve built in the region - and now that we’re starting to go outside the region throughout the country - we’ll be able to maximize this plant.”

Currently, the prepared foods lines run five days a week, while corn and flour operations run seven, which means prepared foods production could be expanded. In the mean time, executives will look for ways to increase efficiency. This includes exploring the use of robotics in the packaging area and replacing older equipment on the flour tortilla lines.

“With the new 85,000-square-foot state-of-the-art manufacturing plant we will be very flexible,” Chris adds. “In foodservice we will be able to manufacture our recipes for broad line distribution, as well as custom recipe requests. We are not limited to manufacturing only Hispanic foods but that will be our main focus.”

No matter what the future holds, Albuquerque has a creed to outline its future endeavors. Pete sums it up, “We are pledging to our consumer that we will offer the highest quality ingredients, the least amount of additives, fillers and preservatives in order to bring the most authentic meals to your table. We are not trying to be the largest manufacturer in the Hispanic food industry, but only striving to be the best.”

Editor’s Note: This article was written with the collaboration of Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery magazine editor Dan Malovany. Portions of this article also appear in the December 2008 issue ofSF&WB, a Refrigerated & Frozen Foods sister publication.

At a glance

Albuquerque Tortilla Co.

Location: Albuquerque, N.M.

Products: More than 48 SKUs including frozen tamales, burritos, taquitos, enchiladas, chile rellenos, corn and flour tortillas, industrial ingredients such as peppers, spices and salsa

Employees:350 total (75 prepared foods side)

Plant size:189,000 square feet total (85,000 square feet prepared foods side)

photo by Vito Palmisano

"Branding" Techniques

Albuquerque Tortilla Co. bakes its New Mexican-style flour tortillas longer than competitors because they are about 30-percent thicker than conventional ones. The tortillas are branded with distinctive toast marks that give the products a unique character. It’s been that way since Luther Martinez founded Albuquerque Tortilla Co. in 1987.

“We were one of the first companies to make thicker tortillas with toast marks. Back then, most tortillas were very thin and very white with no toast marks,” recalls Pete Martinez, vice president of operations.

Albuquerque Tortilla Co.’s flour tortillas also contain more moisture and offer greater flexibility, pliability and durability than conventional ones, adds Chris Martinez, vice president of sales and marketing.

“Our tortillas have a silky texture to them,” he explains. “Their texture is fluffy. You’ve have had to have eaten a homemade tortilla before to know what I?m talking about. They’re pretty darn close with their home-style look and taste.”