Walking into Tortillas Nuevo Leon's 50,000-square-foot production center, the smell of fresh flour tortillas is enough to bring back memories of grandma's kitchen for those who grew up with traditional Mexican cuisine like Jesus Martinez did.
"People always say how good it smells when they walk in here," Martinez said. "I have been working here so long I don't even smell it anymore."
Martinez is vice president of operations at Tortillas Nuevo Leon on Hoffman Street in Hammond, which supplies corn tortillas, flour tortillas, nacho chips and tostada shells to retail, food service and restaurant chains all over the country.
"It brings a smile to your face," he said. "When you can walk into a grocery store in another state and see your product on their shelves."
The company has been serving the Region and Chicago since 1975, when his parents, Oscar and Maria Martinez, built Nuevo Leon from the ground up in East Chicago, after immigrating to the Region from Monterey, Mexico.
The family tradition persisted as their three children, Jesus, Olga and Jaime Martinez, joined the company in 1990 and expanded the product line and distribution networks outside of the area to the rest of the nation. However, they have kept the same recipes their parents started out with.
"When my dad started the business, growing up as a kid when I saw our products in the store, it was hard for me to comprehend that that was our family's business," Olga Martinez said. "I remember when he was delivering to schools, I felt so proud."
In 2008, Nuevo Leon moved into a new 100,000-square-foot facility in Hammond and updated equipment to keep up with customer demand.
They went from producing 400,000 tortillas each day at the East Chicago facility to making 1 million tortillas per day with the help of automated systems.
"When they first started, everything was manually done," Martinez said. "Everything was bagged and boxed by hand, the dough was made by hand. ... Every year something new comes out, there's always something to keep up with in technology."
Flour and corn tortilla dough, or mesa, is mixed in vats and portioned by machines that take the tortillas through a conveyor belt into the shaping, pressing and cooking process. From there, automated packaging makes creating millions of tortilla every week a cinch. The factory has four colossal tortilla production lines, in addition to its fried tortilla chips and tostada shell production lines, which are very similar but include a fryer. Jesus Martinez said each line only needs about six people for production.
He said Tortillas Nuevo Leon products are distributed among 28 states, with 12 distribution centers throughout the country. He remembers working as a teen in the East Chicago plant, mopping floors, cleaning equipment and going on delivery routes.
"My brother and sister and I would work during the summertime when we were out of school," he said. "My dad taught us that you need to start from the bottom up."
He said he has seen steady growth over the years — the Region and Chicago still being one of the company's strongest markets.
"The market is huge in this area," Jesus Martinez said. "About 60 percent still goes to the Northwest Indiana, Chicago area, and 40 percent is distributed out of state."
Culturally, their customer demographic spans far beyond Hispanic families and restaurants.
"Every year tortilla sales grow," he said. "It's a big industry and its not just a Latin product; it's universal with everybody. You can put peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla, you can put a hot dog and toppings in it, there's a lot of ways to enjoy them."
Martinez said that through quality and customer service, the company has built strong relationships with customers in the Region. Olga Martinez said the feedback she gets is a testimony to her family's impact.
"I have had a lot of people and friends say they grew up on our products," she said. "Or I get calls from people from other states that tell us that our tortillas are just like their grandmas made. ... My dad had a vision, a dream, and he went for it. When my parents went for their first loan, it was scary, but they did it, and succeeded."