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Tony's Tortillas tastes of family tradition
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Sylvia Soliz works fast to remove misshapen tortilla chips as they race down the production line at Tony's Tortillas in Silvis. A quick change of the machine rollers and Ms. Soliz is ready to make full-size tortilla shells.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
The floor at Tony's Tortillas in Silvis is crowded with machinery that Sylvia Soliz, center, uses to make the chips and tortillas. After the corn kernels are cleaned they are transfered into a tank where they will be drawn into a grinder.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Hilda Sontos and Leonor Calderon sift through dry corn looking for bad kernels before the corn is washed and processed at Tony's Tortillas in Silvis. A small group of employees all do various jobs involved in the tortilla making process - moving quickly between work stations where they prepare the corn, make the tortillas and package the final product.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
One dozen tortillas fall into a bin with other freshly packaged tortillas at the Tony's Tortillas production facility in Silvis. The small facility produces 1,500 packages of tortillas a day.
SILVIS -- It's 10 a.m. on a Monday in early winter. I am standing next to a clattering metal conveyor belt on which corn tortillas speed by like small, flat flecks of sun. Viewed through the heat rising from the 300-degree oven in the middle of the room, the last few leaves on a tree outside a far window appear to rustle gently in the windless day.

I'm in the production room at the back of Tony's Grocery in Silvis, where, twice a week, seven workers gather to produce 1,500 packages of Tony's Tortillas and 160 bags of Tony's Tortilla Chips.

It's a process that Sylvia Soliz, owner of Tony's Grocery and Tony's Tortillas, knows well. She began working in the tortillaria when she was 12 years old under her father, Anthony "Tony" Saucedo, the original owner.

"I was mostly unpaid; we all were," says Mrs. Soliz, describing the work she and her five siblings did to help their father. But they learned a lot about tortillas.

"My father used to tell me, 'People are going to come to you and want to put a preservative in them. You don't need it,'" says Mrs. Soliz.

When she took ownership of the business, she found his words rang true. She stuck to the original recipe: corn, water, a little lime and salt.

"Everyone loves the fresh corn taste. That really comes through without the preservatives," says Mrs. Soliz.

Because she grinds the corn on site and does not ship the tortillas more than 60 miles, there is no need for chemical additives.

In fact, Mrs. Soliz has come up with an experiment in which she has set packages of her tortillas on a shelf next to packages of tortillas made with preservatives. More often than not, her tortillas last as long if not longer than the others.

It's not just customers who enjoy the taste of corn in Tony's Tortillas. Ken Brummel, a farmer from Sheffield, Ill., has been the exclusive grower of corn for Mrs. Soliz's business for nearly 10 years. Before that, he cleaned and prepared the corn the previous farmer grew for her. Mr. Brummel says there is something particularly special about the taste to him.

"You'll meet farmers who have tasted the beef from the cows they have raised or pork from their pigs, but it's very seldom in this part of the nation that a farmer has eaten the grain he has raised," says Mr. Brummel.

He makes a trip every other week to deliver 57 bushels of corn to Mrs. Soliz. After filling the small silo outside the store, he picks up bags of tortilla chips to deliver to his local grocery store.

Unlike most chips on the shelf in which "you can taste the salt, taste the ranch dressing, taste the chili seasoning, but can't taste the grain," says Mr. Brummel, the chips Mrs. Soliz makes have a pure taste of corn.

It's not just the taste of their products that makes Tony's Tortillas remarkable to Mr. Brummel. "Try to think of another family-owned business that's still in operation after 60 years and hasn't been absorbed by something larger," he says.

Although there have been a few changes made over the years — the tortilla machine used at Tony's Tortillas is the third one they have had since first opening — the way they make the tortillas has remained largely unchanged.

It's a recipe Mrs. Soliz's grandfather traveled back to Mexico to learn. "When my father bought the first machine, he thought the recipe would come with it. He was shocked when they told him no," Mrs. Soliz says with a laugh.

So her grandfather, who had fled the Mexican Revolution more than 30 years prior and had settled in East Moline, returned to his home in Leon, Mexico, to learn tortilla making from his aunts. Once he had the recipe down, he worked out how much of each ingredient he would need to make thousands, rather than dozens, of tortillas.

"He was a smart man, and hard working. When he first came here, he worked as a flagman on the Rock Island Line. He would travel to Chicago on his days off to bring back groceries for the other workers, but he always wanted to be able to sell fresh tortillas," explains Mrs. Soliz.

When her father opened his grocery and bought a machine to make tortillas, he was fulfilling her grandfather's dream.

Now, Mrs. Soliz continues the family tradition. Her day begins about 7 a.m., when she oils the tortilla machine and prepares the grinding stone. It is made of special, volcanic rock sourced from Mexico.

The oven that bakes the tortillas takes an hour to preheat. In the meantime, Mrs. Soliz pours corn from the silo down a special chute into the building. It passes over a screen where she looks over it one last time, removing any imperfect kernels before starting the cooking process.

When the other workers arrive, they fill two tubs with water and bring them to a boil, adding 150 pounds of dried corn and two pounds of dried, powdered lime.

After the corn is cooked, it is drained and taken by auger to the grinding stone, which pulverizes it into masa, the basic mixture used to make tortillas.

From there, the masa is dropped by hand into a machine that rolls it flat and cuts out the tortillas two at a time.

If a tortilla is shaped imperfectly, it is plucked from the conveyer belt and sent back through the rollers. Otherwise, it travels by conveyer to the oven and out again, where another worker lays the warm tortillas flat before they pass down the cooling rack.

Finally, the tortillas arrive at the end of the line, where a cluster of women stack the tortillas by the dozen.

Packaging the tortillas was Mrs. Soliz's first job when she began working for her father. She would wrap the dozens of tortillas in paper to be sold. Now, there is a packaging machine where a final worker tops the stacks of tortillas with a label and tucks them into plastic to be sealed for the store. Mrs. Soliz oversees the operation from start to finish.

Near where I am standing, Mrs. Soliz's son, Zachary Soliz, moves back and forth to help keep the process running smoothly. He adds water to the cooked corn and stirs it.

Mr. Soliz works as a firefighter in Davenport, though he and his wife help his mother with her business and look to continue operating it into the future.

"One thing if you work here, you gotta like the oldies," he says with a grin, tilting his head toward a radio on the shelf. The last strains of "American Pie" can just be heard over the clanging of the machinery.

Mrs. Soliz plucks a tortilla from the belt for me to try, as nimbly as turning the page in a book. Still warm, it has a deep, roasted corn taste and a pleasingly pliable texture. Rather than melt away, these tortillas will hold up even when wrapped around stewed meats such as carne guisada.

Although most people in the Quad-Cities buy Tony's Tortillas at grocery stores — they're sold in Quad-Cities HyVee Food Stores, Country Market in Rock Island and Save-A-Lot in Milan — Zachary Solis and his wife are helping his mother update their own store to include a deli counter, where patrons will be able to eat dishes made with the tortillas fresh from the ovens. They hope to open the deli counter by the end of 2011.

They also are helping Mrs. Soliz track cooking time and weather conditions on a computer to help make the process more efficient. Wet weather can affect the time it takes to cook the tortillas, Mrs. Soliz explains, "and even two minutes can make a big difference."

It's the kind of insight that comes with 60 years of experience in the corn tortilla business.










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  Today is Friday, April 18, the 108th day of 2014. There are 257 days left in the year.
1864 -- 150 years ago: A new steamer, Keithsburg, now is at our levee taking on board the balance of her fixtures preparatory to assuming her position on the daily Rock Island and Keokuk line.
1889 -- 125 years ago: C.W. Hawes was appointed deputy county clerk by county clerk Donaldson.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Mrs. O.E. child, of Moline, was named president of the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church Rock Island District of the Central Illinois conference.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Augustana College is making plans for a drive for funds to erect a field house and make football field improvements.
1964 -- 50 years ago: A expanded election coverage system featuring a 16-foot chalkboard showing up to the minute running totals, attracted a large and enthusiastic crowd to The Argus newsroom last night.
1989 -- 25 years ago: Balloons frame Rock Island attorney Stewart Winstein who was given a surprise party in the rotunda of the Rock Island County Courthouse on Thursday to honor his 50th year of practicing law.




(More History)