Goya Executive Describes How Business Has Responded to Changes in American Culture
The story of Goya, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States, is reminiscent of all the great stories of American enterprise. Don Prudencio Unanue, a Spanish immigrant, opened a storefront in Lower Manhattan in 1936 to bring Spanish olives, sardines, and olive oil to a growing community. The business expanded into a regional brand, and then went national and, eventually, international. Mention the company name and just about everyone can name its business.
But the Goya tale is unique, too. Joseph Perez, senior vice president, explained at a talk at SOM on April 15 how Goya's story also exemplifies the history of a changing America. As new groups of immigrants from Latin America have arrived in the United States, Goya has grown to serve them, adding new products, whether bacalaitos from the Caribbean, pozole from Mexico, or Salvadorian loroco. "We have people who walk the neighborhoods, listening for different accents, looking for signs at Western Union," said Perez, who was speaking at the invitation of the SOM Hispanic Advisory Council and the Marketing club. "They can pick up little hints of who is moving into a neighborhood. As the communities change, we change."
From a few imported goods, Goya now sells 1,500 different products, both throughout the United States and in several Latin American countries. In recent years, the company has opened distribution centers in St. Petersburg, Va., Orlando, and Houston, expanding its reach throughout the South. Sometimes, circumstances beyond anyone’s control have created new opportunities for Goya. "Our Houston distribution center takes in New Orleans, which after Katrina has more Hispanic residents than ever before," Perez said. "We’re always looking for new horizons, for ways to keep growing."
Over the decades, Goya has faced challenges that parallel the Hispanic experience in America. Since its inception the company has struggled to be treated as a mainstream brand by supermarkets. Some of the trouble, Perez said, stems from a lack of knowledge of Hispanic cultures. Goya demands that its sellers have a deep understanding of the foods of Latin America, so they educate stores on what products the local demographic demands. Goya has also had to work to be accepted by store owners who initially refused to stock the company’s products for other reasons. Perez told a story about such an experience when he went searching for Goya products in a suburban New Jersey grocery store many years ago. "I asked where the Goya aisle was and he told me he didn’t want those people in here," Perez said. "And this was from a man running a business."
Such reactions have become fewer as the company has grown and the broader society has embraced Latin food, increasing the demand for Goya products in every section of the country. But no matter how much the company sells to non-Hispanics, Perez said Goya will never lose sight of its core demographic. This is an important vow since that core demographic refuses to remain static. It’s not just a matter of new groups coming into the country on a regular basis. Hispanics have embraced the American dream, he said, which has altered both their diet and their aspirations. This has been reflected in the company’s advertisements. For decades, Goya had one campaign for the Latin community and a different one for the English-speaking community. Goya now has one campaign, with the voiceover in either Spanish or English depending on the TV channel.
The changing nature of Hispanic populations in America is also reflected in the food itself. "There’s a fusion happening in neighborhoods and homes between different people from across Latin America," Perez said. "We have to be aware of that. We have to anticipate what’s coming and be there before anyone else. We sold thousands of cases of beef tripe stew in the 1960s — it’s not so popular anymore."