There's more than one chip plant in Prince William County.
While county economic development officials are working to attract high-tech companies such as the Dominion Semiconductor computer chip plant, Abuelita Mexican Food Products has been making tortilla chips in Manassas Park for about 12 years.
The company, owned and run by Eugene Suarez Sr. and his son, Eugene Suarez Jr., began operating in Herndon in 1969 and was incorporated as S&K Industries in 1971. The elder Suarez says he's retired, though he goes to work nearly every day.
The company's products include Casa de Carmen, Nana's Cocina and Abuelita chips and are sold by Dean & Deluca, Costco, Fresh Fields and Sutton Place Gourmet, among others. Abuelita also provides chips and other products to institutions such as schools, jails and hospitals.
Eugene Suarez Sr. started the company with partner Bill King -- hence the name S&K -- in 1969, while he was still working full time as the chief of police for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Getting into the chip business was not necessarily in Suarez's plans.
Abuelita's enterprise started with a restaurant, the Tortilla Factory, that is still operating in Herndon. Because Suarez and his partner didn't like the way other companies made tortillas for the restaurant, they started making the products in a small factory from his mother's recipe.
Suarez worked weekends and after hours to launch the business but soon discovered that it would take more time than he had. The factory became a full-time project and eventually outgrew its location. Suarez moved the growing business to Manassas Park, after looking for "a location that was user-friendly," he said. "The atmosphere here is very good for little businesses."
His was one of the first companies in the Enterprise Court business park, in 1987, occupying just 10,000 square feet and later expanding to 25,000.
Although company officials have been careful to rein in their expansion, they have run out of room at their location and hope to buy more space there by September. After that, they're aspiring to open an outlet store there in January, to sell upscale salsas and their chips and tortillas.
Although the company would not disclose profits, Peggy Roof, director of operations, said Abuelita has annual revenue of about $3 million, primarily selling to brokers along the East Coast.
Part of Abuelita's success stems from the growing popularity both of Mexican food and a trend toward healthier eating.
The tortilla industry has multiplied tenfold since 1980, expanding from a $300 million to a $3 billion industry, according to Irwin Steinberg, executive director of the Tortilla Industry Association of Dallas. The group attributes such growth to the explosion of Mexican restaurants, an increase in the non-Hispanic population learning about tortillas, and more people discovering that tortillas are inexpensive and healthy, he said.
Abuelita's corn tortillas, taco shells and tortilla chips are made at the Manassas Park factory from as scratch as scratch can be. The factory uses 5 tons of fresh corn each day, with the cooking the most critical part of the chipmaking process, Eugene Suarez Jr. said.
"We're very traditional in that we haven't changed the technology of it," the elder Suarez added.
The products are made from fresh corn, cooked in four large vats that hold 2.5 tons of corn each. The factory uses two tankfuls for each day's production.
In a factory much like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory -- but healthier -- the cooked corn is crushed into dough, sent through machines to be cut into triangles for chips or circles to be tortillas and taco shells. Each goes through its own baking process.
The chips-to-be are sent on a conveyor belt to be baked in an oven, shot through an air tunnel into a quick drier and then sent to a salting bin. The chips go hot off the presses into bags and through metal detectors -- just in case -- before being sealed.
A handful of employees check the chips that come out of the cutting machines to ensure they are of the right consistency. A few employees follow the taco-shell folding machine, counting out the correct number of shells for each pack and tossing the broken ones. Others stand by the bagging machine for a final shake and fold before the bags are sealed.
The younger Suarez designed much of the in-house equipment for Abuelita's purposes -- although he has no patents pending.
The company's 35 employees each have worked at Abuelita an average of eight years; many came over from the plant in Herndon and have settled in the Manassas area since then.
"We're like a family here," said Marie Forman, director of sales. She has been with the company for 25 years.
Paul Hammond, 40, the production manager, joined the company when he was 14 and trying to save money for a bicycle. He said that Abuelita produces 2,500 of the two-pound bags of Abuelita chips three days a week.
The products are named for the elder Suarez's Abuelita Carmen -- little grandmother -- who made the tortillas by hand throughout his childhood in Tucson.
Not yet a centenarian (she changes her age from time to time so she doesn't feel old, Suarez said), his abuelita checks in on the company whose products are named for her when she visits -- in between making huge dinners for her family and recently viewing "Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menance."
CAPTION: Eugene Suarez Sr. and his son, Eugene Suarez Jr., have been making tortilla chips in Manassas Park for about 12 years. Theirs was one of the first companies in the Enterprise Court business park, in 1987. Their company's products include Casa de Carmen, Nana's Cocina and Abuelita chips.
CAPTION: A fresh batch of tortilla chips rolls off the assembly line at the Abuelita Mexican Food Products factory in Manassas Park, ready to be bagged.
CAPTION: Worker Olivia Arreguin looks for subpar chips. The cooking process is the most critical part of chipmaking, Eugene Suarez Jr. said. "We're very traditional in that we haven't changed the technology of it," his father said.
CAPTION: A pile of corn awaits its fate as tortillas, taco shells and tortilla chips. The factory uses 5 tons of fresh corn daily. The corn is cooked in large vats, crushed into dough, sent through cutting machines and then baked.