Don Julio upgrading tortilla 'press'

Fast, efficient machine to allay the effects of rising and falling prices

Published: Saturday, Aug. 23 2008 12:34 a.m. MDT

Don Julio worker Catalina Hurta bags baked tortillas as they move out of a press. The company's two older presses each make 1,300 tortillas an hour.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

CLEARFIELD — At Don Julio Foods Inc., a new $3 million press that can make 3,800 dozen flour tortillas an hour is expected to improve efficiency — a strategy chief executive officer Nate Fisher hopes will help the company cope with the erratic rising and falling prices of wheat, corn and oil in today's economy.

The 15-year-old company sells tortillas and tortilla chips under the Don Julio label, and potato chips under the 70-year-old Clover Club label — which Don Julio purchased in December 2005 — in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. Sales growth in tortillas, tortilla chips and potato chips has been strong. Company executives declined to give growth numbers because the company is private but said sales are about $10 million a year.

One snack foods industry expert attributed growth to people substituting snacks for actual meals in these tough economic times.

Yet, despite sales growth, the price for raw goods and fuel needed to make and transport Don Julio products have increased to new highs in recent months, followed by quick falls and more increases, reflected by the commodities markets on which they're traded.

Surrounded by such economic uncertainty, Fisher, who took the reins of Don Julio in 2006 when his father, Craig Fisher, was called on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, decided to focus resources on what the company could control.

"We're a Utah's Own company," Fisher said, referring to the program that promotes local companies and products. "We understand that, so we're trying to do everything we can to keep our products at an affordable value to the customer, by taking costs out of the system.

The new 52-inch tortilla press will make almost three times as many tortillas in an hour as Don Julio's two 32-inch tortilla presses, which each make 1,300 an hour. The new press requires fewer employees than the older presses — three instead of 11 — and burns 30-40 percent less butane than the older units.

The new tortilla press, which was delivered to Don Julio headquarters at the Freeport Center about three weeks ago from Southern California, arrived in five semi loads and took 10 13-hour days to assemble. "It has to be lined up perfectly and balanced and everything," Fisher said.

"We used a 30,000-pound forklift to bring this equipment in," said Jacob Toscano, director of operations for Don Julio.

Toscano explained that the press contains all the components of tortilla-making on a mass-production scale: It mixes dough, then raises the dough in a proofer, bakes the clumps of dough to become the flat round shape of tortillas, runs the tortillas through a metal detector to ensure no slivers of machinery metal have gotten into them, exposes the tortillas to UV light to slow growth of any mold, then packages them in bags.

Don Julio will keep the older presses running and overall production will increase by 40 percent. Currently, six semis full of tortillas leave the headquarters each day with about 25,000 dozen tortillas per 48-foot trailer, Don Julio Vice President Greg Bingham said.

The new tortilla press is expected to be fired up in the next three to four weeks. Right now, Don Julio employees are working on hooking up power and ordering last-minute parts.

Don Julio contracted production of the tortilla chips to Manuel's Mexican-American Fine Foods Inc. in North Salt Lake. Clover Club potato chips are made in Hermiston, Ore. "People don't know who makes anything any more," Bingham said, but added that the company hopes to eventually bring Clover Club production back to Utah.

Don Petty, chief consultant at Line of Snacks, which helps companies improve quality, said that in the tortilla and potato chip industry, Frito-Lay is the giant and some of its production plants are outside of the United States, which gives it a cost-savings edge. Regional players in the snack foods industry have to compete with Frito-Lay. Petty was not surprised that sales are up for Don Julio in the economy, however.

"They'll basically provide a meal in a bag," he said.


E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com

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