03/22/10 — Making the tortillas ...

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Making the tortillas ...

By Laura Collins
Published in News on March 22, 2010 1:46 PM

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Reporter Laura Collins, left, packs tortillas into packages at Alta Foods in Goldsboro as Adriana Cruz looks on.

The Job: Tortilla maker

The Company: Alta Foods

The Location: Goldsboro

I should have learned my lesson.

A couple of months ago I tried my hand at the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. topper line. I learned then that I am neither coordinated nor quick.

I don't know why I thought tortillas would have been any different.

Alta Foods owner Don Barnes put me at the end of a conveyer belt loading tortillas into their packaging. Each package was to hold eight tortillas. The women who worked with me at the end of the line are experts at their job. They can tell if they have eight tortillas just based on the weight alone. Employee Adriana Cruz would pick up a stack, and either add or remove a tortilla based on how heavy it was.

Since I am not familiar with how much eight tortillas weigh, I started by trying to count out eight and putting them in the bag. This worked for about 12 seconds until the second stack of tortillas dropped from the conveyer belt on top of the first stack which was still there because I hadn't packaged it yet.

As a result, this would be a great day to go out and buy Celia Tortillas. Since my first method of counting wasn't quick enough, I pretty much just stuffed handfuls of tortillas into bags. I am 100 percent certain at least one bag has 13 tortillas in it. Several have nine, but some of them were caught when operations manager Brent Gurley noticed the overly stuffed bags.

"Why is this one so heavy?" he asked. I pretended I didn't hear him.

"We should open this bag and count them out," he said.

"Maybe we should just leave it and let whoever buys it get a nice surprise," I said, knowing that if it were opened and the count was off, it would be easy to pinpoint the culprit. In my head I heard the "Sesame Street" song: "One of these things is not like the other, One of these things just doesn't belong." I clearly stood out as the weak link.

Luckily there ended up being a glitch with the machine and the tortillas started coming out smaller than expected.

"Is this in any way my fault?" I asked about the mini-tortillas that the machine was now mass producing.

"Not yet," Gurley said. He was clearly confident in my abilities.

I was eventually moved to the other conveyer line with Josefina Albarez and Sona Gorres. Ms. Albarez is a lightning-fast tortilla stacker. I'm assuming that Ms. Gorres is also, but she spent most of her time repackaging ones I had already packed.

At first, I didn't know she was doing this. Ms. Albarez and I were packaging stacks of 100 tortillas coming off the conveyer belt then passing them off to Ms. Gorres to seal and put in a box. After doing this for a few minutes, I turned to see what Ms. Gorres' job consisted of.

That's when I saw it.

Apparently, after I bagged the stacks of tortillas and passed them on, Ms. Gorres was dumping them out of the bag, aligning and rebagging them. While this was clearly a shot to my ego, it made sense. My stacks were disheveled and leaned so much, they could barely stand on their own. She also squeezed some air out of the bags so they were more airtight and looked more like sealed tortillas and less like balloons with tortillas banging around inside.

"You know, you can leave whenever you need to. You don't have to stay all day," Barnes said. I think it might have been a hint, so I gracefully bowed out of the tortilla lines.

Regardless, working for Barnes for a day was a treat. This is the second time that he has started and created a successful tortilla business and it's easy to see why. He had a tortilla factory in the early 1990s, which he later sold to Mission Foods. Two years ago, he decided to get the band back together and do it again.

Although many of those people had since found other jobs, they returned to work for him when he decided to go back into business. Alta Foods has since been approved as the primary tortilla supplier for Meals Ready to Eat for the military and also supplies Nutri-System's tortillas. The success doesn't seem to surprise him. He credits hard work and his incredible staff for their accomplishments.

"I really enjoyed it the first time," he said. "I love what I'm doing, and I have access to some really good people here."