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. Plus, he says, the neighborhood’s non-Hispanic residents will buy Goya, too.
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.
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.
“It’s a United Nations kind of label,” said Bob Gorland, a supermarket consultant at Matthew P. Casey & Associates.
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 has always done direct store delivery 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 customers are looking for, which creates loyalty.