Tempting Latino Tastes

Booming Hispanic market lures state’s producers and grocers.

By Dennis Pollock, The Fresno Bee

There was a time when some referred to the state’s Hispanic population as a sleeping giant.

Now, that sleeping giant has given way to the hungry giant in the eyes of farmers, commodity groups and shippers looking at what is clearly a burgeoning market.

“We (Latinos) eat lettuce and tomatoes like everybody else,” says Steven Soto, president of the Mexican American Grocers Assocition in Los Angeles. But there are notable differences, including bigger families with a penchant for fresh produce, buying power quadrupling in less than 20 years and a population expected to double between 2000 and 2025.

It’s no surprise then that the ag outreach to Hispanics is being stepped up. It includes a Fresno produce company that has started putting cartoons on its fruit packages that show colorful characters from the popular Hispanic comic strip Los Kitos, Foster Farms’ hiring celebrity cooking show host Chef LaLa to pitch its poultry, and a billboard campaign in Southern California with a price tag of hundreds of thousands of dollars to spur beef sales.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for producers to reach out,” Soto says, pointing out that grocery stores, particularly those targeting Hispanic shoppers, are increasing the size of their produce, milk and meat sections. “It astonishes me that a lot of retailers are not catching on to this. If you’ve got a Latino-themed store and they are taking 40% of your business away…This is ag’s future consumer. And it doesn’t hurt that you have programs like 5 a Day educating about healthy food.”

The California Latino 5 a Day Campaign encourages eating five servings of fruits and vegetables daily and calls attention to the fact that the state’s Hispanics have an especially high rate of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.

“What we’re marketing is something that is healthy,” says Healther Flower, spokesman for Western Growers Association in Irvine. The association of growers, packers and shippers in California and Arizona produces nearly half the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables.

Flower says the 5 a Day effort can help reach “an untapped market” while addressing health concerns. She adds that Western Growers has increased its outreach in Arizona with programs that will be taken first to California’s Imperial Valley in October. They include events geared to the farmworker population, which is commonly Hispanic and often Mexican, where there will be screening for high cholesterol and blood pressure, diabetes and other health problems.

Sometimes the pitch for Hispanic consumption goes hand in hand with a pitch about health concerns. For instance, Irene Cabanas with Integrated Marketing Works in Irvine works with the California Avocado Comission to tout the use of guacamole and fresh avocados. The commission hired a doctor who is reassuring shoppers that the fruit can be used as a substitute for sour cream, cheese or mayonnaise.

Laura Diaz, who calls herself Chef LaLa, also can be expected to make health pitches while appearing at road show events for Foster Farms. A Le Cordon Bleu chef, Diaz adopted the LaLa label because of the way a young nephew pronounced her name. She studied and worked as a cardiopulmonary therapist before finding that career path too emotionally wrenching. Diaz settled on food preparation, became the owner of Los Angeles catering company Savor!, began appearing on the cooking show “U LaLa” and is trying to get a contract with a major Spanish-language television network.

On July 13, Chef LaLa will make her first appearance on behalf of Foster Farms at the San Jose Mariachi Festival, followed by Fiesta de la Alegria in Los Angeles on July 20.

“As a Latina, I approach cooking with a passion like everything else,” Diaz says. “I love to cook and I love to eat. I want to be able to lick my fingers when I am done and say ‘That is good.’ ”

Targeting Hispanics is not new to Foster Farms, which began its outreach in 1999 with commercials, then expanded to using mobile kitchens to visit Hispanic events.

Anita Santiago Advertising in Los Angeles, a pioneer in Hispanic outreach, has been hired for the Foster campaign. The company was hired nearly 10 years ago by the Calilfronia Milk Processor Board for its “got milk?” campaign.

“Back then, Hispanic advertising was in its infancy, “ Anita Santiago says.

“There was nowhere to look for what other commodities had done. I had to rely on my own intuition and common sense.”

Santiago says she got the account despite the fact she told the milk board the tagline “got milk?” – along with some other elements of the campaign – would not work with the Hispanic community.

For one thing, Santiago says, “got milk?” translated literally could be taken as the question “Are you lactating?”

“More worrisome than that was that the strategy used in the ‘got milk?’ approach was deprivation, the idea that the person ends up without milk, “ Santiago says. “
For us, that simply is not funny. Running out of it is not funny.”

The changes Santiago made illustrate the need for cultural sensibilities in outreach, says Jeff Manning, executive director of the California Milk Processor Board.

“The strategy was wrong, and the tagline was wrong,” he says.

The supposed humor in not having a glass of milk while eating a peanut butter sandwich, for example, did not play well among Hispanic. “We don’t milk out of a glass so much as we use it in recipes, and a peanut butter sandwich is a very American thing,” Santiago says. “We have recipes with tons of milk in them –flans, rice pudding, milk jello.”

‘Family, love and milk’

Santiago first developed a Latino tagline of “Have you given them enough milk today?” then settled on the current pitch: “Familia Amor y Leche” (“Family, Love and Milk.”)

Earlier this year, five television spot ads were launched highlighting some major issues in lives of contemporary California Latinos: a busy working mom sharing traditional values of cooking, an aging soccer player who still treasures milk, the enjoyment of fresh food and eating at home, nutrition that doesn’t come in a pill and the joys of a big family.

The clout of the Spanish media is obvious to people such as Santiago, who grew up in Venezuela. She points out the huge ratings of Univision and Telemundo. “Univision has ratings higher than any English-language station in Los Angeles.”

Because Los Angeles, Orange and part of Riverside counties are home to approximately 7 million of the state’s 11.5 million Hispanic, the California Beef Council has mounted a $400,000 campaign aimed at the Hispanic market, a third of the organization’s annual marketing budget.

“Six years ago, we recognized the Latino customer as a major market,” says Bruce Berven, executive director of the beef council. “We found that industrywide traditional marketing efforts were not carrying messages that resonated with those customers.”

To get the most bang for its buck, the council zeroed in on the Los Angeles area. Susan Clark, the council’s director of marketing, says the outreach started in 2000 at carnecerias, small retail stores that specialize in fresh meat. “We worked with 100 of them the first two years, using in—tore materials, balloons, banners, giveaways, face—painting and entertainment, “ Clark says.

Next came billboards with the message “Rompe la Rutina” – break the routine. The idea was that beef is not just for special occasions but can be enjoyed at other times as well. There are now 58 billboards in the Los Angeles area. Special events with radio DJs are another draw.

Berven says the Latino outreach has proved a nice complement to conventional beef marketing effort:”Latinos are more willing to spend time on meal preparations. Convenience items are not a big issue.”

That difference augments the beef industry’s efforts at selling precooked meat. The council also has touted cuts of beef particularly popular with Hispanics but not so popular with others.

Berven says Hispanics are heavy consumers of beef, possibly eating as much as 40% of the state’s production. “It’s an important public, and we don’t want to see (consumption) declinem,” Berven says.

The management team at Crown Jewels Marketing and Distribution of Fresno is also reaching Hispanics with its licensing agreement with Los Kitos Entertainment in Santa Ana to help promote its vegetable and fruits lines.

Los Kitos characters already appear on labels on strawberries, including packages in Vons stores in the Valley and elsewhere. The cartoons also will be used to sell peaches, plums, nectarines, apples and pears.

Los Kitos, “The Toons” in Spanish, and the comic strip’s characters are featured in 372 newspapers worldwide. Creator Martha Montoya met Atomic Torosian, chief executive officer at Crown Jewels, about 10 years ago when she worked in the produce business, helping companies find off-season crops in Latin America.

Drawing on heritage

Montoya says it is rare for a produce company to do what Crown Jewels did, entering a two –year contract using the cartoon figures she has created. That’s because of fluctuations in prices of produce.

Montoya draws –literally—on her background growing up on family –owned coffee farms in Colombia.

“I have the sun or moon in every comic strip,” she says. “There’s always agriculture behind the characters.”

She still keeps a hand in the produce business, having recently done a survey for growers of potatoes in the Dakotas. It was aimed at finding out whether red potatoes would sell among Hispanics. The results indicated they were preferred.

For some commodity groups, there are no programs that are specifically aimed at any one ethnic group, though there is translation of materials.

“We feel apples are so universal,” says Kenton Kidd, president of the California Apple Comission in Fresno.

But that commission has its eyes on a potentially huge Hispanic market –across the border in Mexico itself.

“We are trying desperately to get into Mexico,” Kidd says, pointing out that Washington ships 6 million boxes of apples each year to Mexico. ”We have the potential in several years to be shipping a million boxes there, about $15 million-$ 20 millino worth of apples, without hurting their industry.”

Kidd says barriers to Mexico could be dropped as early as summer, helped in part by a $150,000 grant from the state to help defray the costs of entering the market.

Colleen Aguiar, a spokeswoman for the Almond Board of California, says the board is considering targeting Hispanic shoppers. “we’re just skimming the surface now, looking at what other commodity boards have done”, she says.

Bart Minor, president of the Mushroom Council, says his organization is looking closely at the Crown Jewels campaign and trying to find “the purchase trigger” for Latino sales –whether that is pricing, packaging or other factors.

Kathleen Nave, head of the California Table Grape Commission in Fresno, says her organization has sought for years to encourage the use of grapes in traditional Hispanic dishes.

“It’s a demographic we watch because it is typically larger households, fruit consumption is higher and the percent of income spent on food is higher,” Nave says. “It’s a very good consuming segment where there are lots of festivities, lots of family activities and sharing and breaking of bread.”

The reporter can be reached at dpollock@fresnobee.com or 441-6364