SHIRLEY — It’s hard to imagine not noticing a production facility that turns out 2,100 units of anything every minute, but unless the place is really cooking, you could walk right by Shirley Foods Inc.
For nearly 40 years, the beige building at the corner of Walnut and Meridian streets in Shirley has been mixing, cooking, heat blasting, hand-stretching and bagging flour and corn tortillas. But unless the ovens are baking and the conveyors are running, the place is as quiet as an August cornfield.
“They weren’t cooking, were they?” said lifelong Shirley resident Andy Ebbert with a laugh when told it was hard to get a precise fix on Shirley Foods’ location.
It’s all in the timing, it seems. When the gas furnaces light up, it’s not hard to figure out just where the Toth family’s establishment is.
“You can smell them cooking corn all over the north end of town,” Ebbert said.
Ebbert went to school with the company’s third-generation and current operations manager, Brian Toth, whose grandfather, Frank, started the business nearly 50 years ago in Dayton, Ohio.
“My grandpa started a catering business, and he wanted to make Mexican food, so he started tinkering with a recipe,” Brian Toth said earlier this week as he walked among the aluminum bins full of corn, topped with hydrogenated lime that helps remove the husk during the cooking process.
In another room, a light fog of flour hangs in the air as 70 to 90 flour tortillas slide off the line each minute. The dough is automatically rolled into balls, pressed and then hand-stretched into shape by employee Jason Fletcher before it rolls through the hot-air oven for 30 seconds.
It’s the hand-stretching before the fire that makes the Shirley Foods tortilla stand out, Toth said.
Frank’s collaboration with a partner in Indianapolis along with a natural gas shortage in Dayton led the enterprise to Shirley in 1975, where there was plenty of gas to fire the ovens. And there was even more corn.
The business settled on the foundation of one of Shirley’s old bottle glass factories, right off the railroad right of way, that, along with a glut of natural gas, fueled Shirley’s boom days at the turn of the century.
One day a week, the company fires up a five-hour production run, mixing the ingredients and bagging more than 100,000 corn tortillas.
For flour tortillas, the crew turns out about 24,000 units over a five-hour run twice weekly.
Any way you bake it, that’s just a whole bunch of burritos.
The company gets most of its raw ingredients locally: flour and corn from Fishers, Shelbyville and Beech Grove; packaging material comes from other area companies like Indiana Box in Greenfield.
“We’re a local company, and we try to stay with local suppliers,” Toth said.
Once the tortillas are bagged, sealed and stacked in the freezer, some make their way to a couple of area Mexican restaurants on the east side of Indianapolis, but most are picked up by distributors and trucked far and wide.
In the old days, locals could get their hands on the goods from “the taco factory” as it was called, but that ended when the grocery store in town went out of business.
“I remember growing up, (Frank) had a food trailer he’d sell them out of, and you could buy them here because the local grocery store used to carry them,” Ebbert said.
The company currently utilizes a workforce of six or seven employees year-round, and with a 40-year presence in town, most everyone in Shirely knew or knows someone who has worked there.
“It seems like it’s been here forever,” said Joan Cupp, who has also lived in Shirley her entire life.
At only 41, Toth said there’s a lot more time to fill the air in town with the aroma of tortillas each week.
“As long as the business is good, and as long as I can stick it out, we’ll be here,” he said.
A sure way to know if the company is still cooking: Get downwind on the north end of town and breathe deeply.