About a year ago, in Washington’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, an independent grocer called Bestway changed hands. The new owner is In Suk Pak, a South Korean by way of Pennsylvania. He renamed the store Bestworld and rejiggered the store’s product mix to fit the neighborhood’s changing demographics, adding gourmet chips and high-end beers and Asian items such as wasabi peas and dried seaweed.
But there was one aisle he didn’t touch: Goya’s.
Festooned with blue Goya-labeled tape and a Goya-logo spice rack, the aisle is densely packed with sacks, cans, boxes, bottles and jars of every imaginable bean, grain, sauce, juice and spice. The Goya salesperson just tells him what he needs to fill the section, and he’s happy to take the advice.
“I’m not Latino. I don’t know what they eat,” says Pak, shuffling around in a pink striped polo shirt supervising stocking on a Wednesday morning. Plus, he says, the neighborhood’s non-Hispanic residents will buy Goya, too.
Just a block away, Progreso International also stocks Goya products — they’re cheap and of good quality, the proprietor says.
That level of trust among urban Hispanic communities has landed Goya in nearly every corner bodega and medium-size independent grocery store like Bestworld. And while Goya seems exotic, the food is mostly not imported, or even run by people with roots in Latin cultures.
The company, in fact, is based in New Jersey. It was founded 77 years ago by Spaniards who had come to New York through Puerto Rico. It has hired enough natives to develop a flavor profile that’s close to the real thing and has marketed itself as a Hispanic-owned company.
Now, it’s the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States, with $1.3 billion in sales last year (still a long way behind market giants like General Mills, which brought in $16.7 billion in 2012).
But the burgeoning Hispanic population isn’t enough for Goya. It has moved into other foreign cuisines, including Indian and Chinese, in a bid to become the food company for all people new to America. It’s also developing products for second and third generations of immigrants, who might want something pre-cooked but still homey-tasting, or who might have intermarried with other nationalities and want to mix everything together.
“It’s a United Nations kind of label,” said Bob Gorland, a supermarket consultant at Matthew P. Casey & Associates. He regards Goya, more than any other brand, as a section unto itself, much like the kosher aisle or natural foods area.
Now, as the “general market” becomes more interested in ethnic cuisines, Goya has positioned itself as the “authentic” option that you don’t have to go to ethnic markets to find.
Goya — so named after the Spanish painter because founder Prudencio Unanue Ortiz liked the simplicity and vague familiarity of the name — started out packing and selling olives and olive oil in Brooklyn. It’s now a sprawling network of 16 worldwide processing and distribution centers, mostly based in the United States.
Although the bulk of Goya’s beans are grown in the United States, many of its specialty products come from around the world: coconut water from Thailand, yucca from Costa Rica, quinoa from Peru.
That Goya has warehouses at all is unusual. Many big food companies ship their products directly to warehouses belonging to grocery chains, such as Safeway, which load their own trucks from there.
Goya has always done direct store delivery — “DSD” in industry jargon — because, as the owners see it, every store has a different audience. The sales staff researches local immigrant groups with the help of a business intelligence tool called Geoscape, as well as more enterprising techniques, like hanging out at the local money transfer franchise to see where people are sending checks home to. That way, Goya knows how to stock exactly what Cubans or Salvadorans or Peruvians are looking for, which creates brand loyalty.
“To us, it’s important to make the connection through a product that maybe we’re not going to sell truckloads of, but we’re going to have the product on the shelf so when a consumer goes in they say, ‘Wow, I can relate to Goya because it’s authentic; this product makes me feel like I’m at home,’” said Peter Unanue, executive vice president in charge of distribution.
In gentrified neighborhoods, like parts of downtown Philadelphia, that are now packed with yuppies, the less-exotic products sell better.
“You put a pacaya or a loroco in, and they don’t know what to do with it,” said Juan Lopez, Goya’s district manager for the Mid-Atlantic. “You put a low-sodium yellow rice, pretty much everybody across the board eats beans and rice.”
Even Walmart is seeing things Goya’s way. “When we first started to do business with them, they wanted to put a generic program in place,” Lopez said. “It wasn’t successful because of the diverse ethnicities.”
Goya certainly isn’t without competition — from brands such as Del Monte and Bush’s, but also often from supermarkets themselves. Giant and Target will put a store-brand can of beans next to Goya’s, at a few nickels off the price. In those situations, Goya likes to contend that its products have a higher quality than the generic brand.
The difference in quality isn’t necessarily noticeable, even to discerning palates.
“They’ve never seemed better to me,” says Mark Bittman, The New York Times food writer and best-selling cookbook author. “I’ve never detected the slightest difference in canned beans, except sometimes they taste tinny. And overly salty. But both of those phenomena have occurred with Goya, in my experience.”
Ubiquity, however, is an even bigger advantage for Goya than perceptions of quality. Food bloggers sometimes specify Goya ingredients because it’s the easiest way to identify what to look for.
Yvette Marquez runs a popular Mexican food website called Muy Bueno. She started out in El Paso, Texas, where there were lots of options for ingredients. Now she’s in Denver, where she’s found that ethnic food aisles are more limited to Goya products.
“I’ve recommended Goya products because I know people will be able to find it,” she said. Plus, they have items like ready-made empanada dough.
But, she notes, it’s not exactly gourmet fare. The hipster foodies will still probably seek out super-specialty items in bodegas that carry things the supermarkets won’t. For everyone else, there’s Goya.
While charging into the 21st century, Goya is also a very old-world American company in many ways. It has a high cost structure, with a large sales force and labor-intensive delivery model. At the same time, its growth potential makes it an attractive acquisition target.
Buyout offers come “all the time,” Unanue said. But he said he couldn’t be less interested in selling to a megacorporation or hedge fund that might turn Goya into a financial instrument, like KKR did with Nabisco.
“Sometimes, an outside company would come in and say, ‘Well, the way you do business is very expensive,’” Unanue said. “We can cut costs, and then there’s hundreds of brokers out of jobs, hundreds of drivers out of jobs, and warehouse people, and we’re not serving the consumer.”