Goya Foods Grows With U.S. Hispanic Population

fromWNYC

Goya, the nation's largest Hispanic-owned food company is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The privately-held company started out as a single store in Manhattan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, in most parts of the country you will find the name of the nation's largest Hispanic food company in grocery store aisles.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOYA COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Spanish spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If it's Goya it has to be good.

INSKEEP: That's an ad for Goya, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. With more than 2,000 different products - from coconut juice to bean varieties - the company has steadily grown, along with the country's Latino population, and so you learn something about the changing country from this company's story.

Charlie Herman of member station WNYC in New York reports on how Goya built its business and what they want to do now.

CHARLIE HERMAN, BYLINE: Like any successful business, Goya has to offer what its customers want. And that means understanding that sometimes a bean is not just a bean.

ROBERT UNANUE: In Mexico it'll be pinto, then it's frijole pinot. The Dominican Republic will be abetrella(ph) pinta. In Chile it's...

HERMAN: Robert Unanue is the president of Goya Foods and is the third generation of his family to run the privately held company. At the headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, he flips through a 500-page coffee table-size book chronicling Goya's history.

UNANUE: It's the story not only of the company or the family, but it's the story of Spanish immigration.

HERMAN: Robert's grandfather, Prudencio, emigrated from Spain and founded the company in Lower Manhattan. He sold Spanish-made food products to his fellow immigrants. But in 1936, when the Spanish Civil War made importing from that country impossible, Prudencio sold sardines from Morocco labeled Goya. He liked the name, bought it for a dollar, and the company was born.

UNANUE: He built the company on the immigrant community coming into the United States.

HERMAN: And as more Spanish-speaking immigrants came to this country - from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central and South America - Goya grew along with them. Sales are now more than a billion dollars a year. But it's not just the surge in the Hispanic population that accounts for its success.

JOSEPH PEREZ: We have a saying here, you know, we're united by language, we're separated by the bean.

HERMAN: To explain this more clearly, Goya veteran Joseph Perez, who oversees sales and marketing, walks amidst the stacks of tropical flavored drinks and jars of olives and points to one can of beans.

PEREZ: Here we have a black bean puree called frijoles voltiados, voltiados means flipped. It's from Central America. What makes it different than other beans? It is totally pureed, it is not a refried bean that's chunky. This is the difference between chunky peanut butter and smooth peanut butter. Central Americans want it smooth, as opposed to the Mexican version, which would be chunky.

HERMAN: It's not only knowing the differences but it's making sure that can of beans is in the right store in the right neighborhood. To do that, Goya - unlike many of its competitors - still delivers direct to stores, especially those corner groceries known as bodegas.

Burt Flickinger is a retail analyst with Strategic Resource Group.

BURT FLICKINGER: Every store can have a different assortment, so if it's people from the Caribbean and you have Dominican consumers in one neighborhood and two blocks away Cuban consumers, Goya will have a slightly different assortment for preferences for consumers from different Caribbean countries.

HERMAN: That leads to a higher turnover of its products on the shelves and higher profits for the company. Like any family-run business, Goya's had its share internal strife. Family members have even battled each other in court. But it's survived and the company continues to grow. It's opening a cannery in Texas with 150 new employees. It's planning to build a new multi-million dollar headquarters in New Jersey. And it's even considering expanding operations in Mexico.

For NPR News, I'm Charlie Herman.

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