San Antonio’s BE&SCO Machinery Cornered the Flour Tortilla Market
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San Antonio’s BE&SCO Machinery Cornered the Flour Tortilla Market

Dec 16, 2023

Aaron Escamilla remembers growing up around the family business, just as his dad did before him—working in the parts department, labeling boxes, and so on. The CEO of San Antonio–based BE&SCO, a producer of machines that make tortillas, 41-year-old Aaron took over from his dad three years ago, in 2019. Apart from a brief stint flipping burgers at Whataburger one summer, this is the only company he's ever worked for.

On a sparkling late-summer morning, Aaron and vice president Stephen Reynosa take their seats at a long conference table at BE&SCO's headquarters, in the industrial Five Points neighborhood just north of downtown, and wait for Aaron's dad to shuffle in and take a seat at the head of the table. Robert Escamilla, 75, may no longer be CEO, but there's no question who commands the room.

In the more than three decades Robert ran BE&SCO, he turned it into one of the most important but least known forces in the world of tacos—and, more recently, flatbreads of every variety—over a period when tacos became arguably the most obsessed-about food in the country. The company's stainless-steel machines, most of which are small enough to fit on a tabletop in a professional kitchen, press balls of dough into flat discs, then spit them out onto an electric comal to be cooked and flipped. The largest device can make up to 1,800 flour tortillas per hour, but most turn out a few hundred.

BE&SCO's tortilla presses have turned out fresh flatbreads in restaurants that run the gamut from San Antonio's sprawling Tex-Mex temple Mi Tierra to taco shops such as Austin-based Torchy's Tacos; for grocers including the national conglomerate Kroger as well as a certain beloved Texas chain (whose house-made tortillas are something of an obsession for many people); and in buildings belonging to some of the world's biggest businesses, including Facebook, Google, and Disney. Even Harvard University got a machine.

How and why this unassuming family business came to occupy a position of such dominance, with its products in over sixty countries, is a story of equal parts innovation and tradition. It's a tale that goes back more than a century to when Robert's grandfather—Aaron's great-grandfather—moved his family from Durango, Mexico, to San Antonio.

"We come from a long family of bakers," says Robert, who cuts a sharp profile dressed all in black, with white whiskers. "We know what bread is, and we know how it's supposed to taste, smell, and everything else." His grandfather started a bakery in San Antonio in the early twentieth century, and then his dad started his own, called Pastryland, decades later—and that's where Robert grew up.

By the 1960s, when Robert was still a boy, the bakery was failing. His dad, Elias, was more of a craftsman than a businessman, and in 1964 he decided his future lay in repairing ailing bakery equipment. "He was mechanically gifted, a problem solver," Robert remembers, "so he started buying, refurbishing, and selling used equipment." Pastryland's replacement was called the Bakery Equipment & Service Company—BE&SCO, or Besco for short. It was a good idea, but by the time Robert was in his late twenties and working as the company's sole long-haul trucker, piloting an eighteen-wheeler on week-long trips to Philadelphia and Chicago to make pickups, he started thinking about the business, which was taking in less money than it was spending. He told his dad it was time to pivot again and find something new.

Around the same time, a customer brought them a tortilla machine for repair. The machine was enormous, and together the Escamillas puzzled over its design. "We figured there had to be a better way to make this, a simpler way," Robert says. "And so, we decided to get into the tortilla business."

As a native San Antonian, Robert was used to peering back into restaurant kitchens and seeing someone, usually a Mexican woman, hand-making tortillas—"rolling them out, rolling them out, rolling them out," he recalls. He also knew how important a good tortilla was to a taco, as the vehicle for everything else and the first thing a diner bites into. In the bakery-equipment business, he’d developed a knack for devising new parts that could not only repair machines but improve them in one way or another. So, as he weighed the possibilities for improving on tortilla-making, he hit on a glaring hole in the market. The handmade tortillas he’d seen so many times were excellent, sure, and great for small mom-and-pop operations. But they were hardly a large-scale solution for the kind of Mexican restaurants that were becoming popular as the cuisine went mainstream. Yet fifteen-foot factory machines were also wildly impractical.

Through trial and error, he eventually landed on a wedge-shaped design that could fit on a table and make use of gravity, so dough balls would feed in on one end, get pressed into tortillas, and slide out the other side to be griddled. "It's just a simple machine that does what a conventional machine would do, but with a fraction of the BTUs and a fraction of the moving parts," Robert says. It would make a few hundred tortillas an hour rather than thousands, but that was just fine for the restaurant clients he was targeting.

It was 1987, and the mostly California-based manufacturers of traditional tortilla machines—the ones used for mass products bound for grocery shelves—took no notice of the little upstart down in South Texas, even as it started to sign bigger accounts. Houston's Pappas family was the breakthrough client. It started using BE&SCO's machines at Pappasito's, whose original location at Richmond and Hillcroft was an industry legend for the volume of customers and food it served daily. San Antonio's Alamo Cafe, also an institution, signed up. Then Busch Gardens called.

After two generations in business, the Escamilla family had finally found its niche. Sure, there were large chain restaurants that would still buy prepackaged tortillas, but for any place that wanted them fresh, there was one company to call. Robert minces no words for the prepackaged competition. "You have no idea what's in that tortilla to keep it from molding," he says. "I’m not touching that." Besides: "Are you taking your customers for granted by serving them a subpar product? Or are you giving them the smell of fresh-baked goods, the bite of that tender flour tortilla?" He's talking up a shiny metal appliance, but by the tone of his voice, he might as well be wearing an apron and serving his latest culinary creation, piping hot and presented with pride.

When Andrew Savoie was opening his restaurant, Resident Taqueria, in Dallas's Lake Highlands neighborhood seven years ago, he wanted to serve fresh tortillas, but he knew hand-making them was going to be too slow and labor-intensive if his chef-driven taco creations (pecan-smoked chicken with pickled sofrito, crushed peanuts, and salsa macha; caramelized cauliflower with kale, pepitas, and lemon-epazote aioli) drew the crowds he hoped for. As a classically trained chef who came up through such powerhouse kitchens as Jean-Georges in New York City and Bouchon in Napa Valley, he knew exactly what he wanted in a tortilla, just not the ins and outs of the trade.

It wasn't until he attended a food trade show in Dallas that he learned about BE&SCO. The company worked with him to modify some equipment to his specifications (he was aiming for a thinner, denser tortilla than the fluffy San Antonio kind), and within a week of altering his recipe to use vegetable oil rather than animal fat, Savoie was turning out the exact tortillas he’d imagined.

Today Resident Taqueria goes through some six hundred flour tortillas per day, and Savoie has developed a system in which his staff takes collective responsibility for manning the machine, so at any time it's turning out tortillas fresh enough to appear on diners’ tables within minutes of being cooked. BE&SCO, he says, "has essentially cornered the market on fresh flour-tortilla production. I like to say there are three workhorses in my kitchen: number one is the tortilla machine, number two is the slow cooker, and number three is my employees."

Savoie's story parallels those of many other clients who didn't know they needed BE&SCO's help until they happened upon it. During BE&SCO's pivot to tortillas, in the early nineties, the company attended a food-industry trade show in Chicago where the organizers gave them booth space tucked away in the basement, far from the crowds swarming the megabooths for Pepsi and other food giants upstairs. It was an international show, and at one point a woman of South Asian descent approached Robert and asked if his machine could work a product she claimed was very similar to a tortilla. He figured the worst-case scenario was he’d have to clean up a mess, so he agreed to try—"and it actually ran better than with a tortilla," he says. The product was chapati, an unleavened flatbread from India and surrounding countries made with a whole-wheat flour called atta.

Thus began a whole new way of thinking about BE&SCO's business. "Almost every culture has a flatbread," says Reynosa, the vice president, a 39-year-old San Antonio native and West Point grad who studied mechanical engineering. "A lot of times those traditions go way back, further than modern breads." Flatbreads are often fundamental pieces of cultures, just as tortillas are in Mexican and Texan culture, he continues. "Most of us grew up with Grandma making tortillas, and it was a staple—cheap, easy, delicious. Put some beans in there, some cheese, some meat if you’re lucky. And what makes a good tortilla? It depends where you’re from. In San Antonio, it's very specific—fluffy and probably full of lard. But that's just here." Just as BE&SCO's machines could make tortillas to match different regional styles, they could match different global flatbread styles—chapati, naan, pita, and on and on.

With his engineering background, Reynosa has taken on the resident tinkerer role at BE&SCO that used to be occupied by Robert. His first invention, the Beta, improves on the old wedge design by dropping the pressed tortillas onto an automated comal that looks something like a spiral playground feature. The tortillas slide around the circle slowly and get flipped by a scraper arm, landing on a lower level to be grilled on the opposite side before emerging completely cooked, ready to be stacked and served. "The beauty of it is there are no chains or belts," Reynosa beams, "just one motor to turn the whole assembly, and it uses gravity and physics for everything else."

Aaron Escamilla, meanwhile, has made it his mission as the new CEO to modernize the business all around, from simply tightening up operations to taking care of employees, some of whom have been with the company for decades. BE&SCO makes manual and electric extruders for tamales, as well. Someday it might get into corn tortillas, if Reynosa can figure out a way to improve on the process. But more important, Aaron says, is identifying more opportunities with existing machinery the company didn't even know it was missing. "Finding out we could do chapati was not something that we really figured out on our own," he says. "So what else is there like that? We have people inquiring daily: ‘Can it run this kind of crepe?’ ‘Can it do gluten-free?’ "

Much of that investigative work involves traveling to food shows and other countries and getting feedback. About 20 percent of sales are international today, Aaron says, which leaves ample room for growth. But as the population of Texas—and the U.S. overall—becomes ever more multicultural, the same opportunities to diversify are available right here at home. After all, as Robert reminds everyone, it wasn't long ago that tortillas were seen as an exotic growth opportunity here.

"When we were kids, if you brought a taco to school, you had to hide it to eat it," Robert says. "Everybody brought sandwiches. But nowadays? Now the kids want to trade their sandwiches for tacos." If in the future they’re also trading for Turkish wraps, or chapati with a little curry, he hopes, BE&SCO will already be there, setting the standard for flatbreads.

"We come from When Andrew Savoie