How Goya Turned Beans Into a Business Empire

October 28, 2016, 4:53 PM UTC

In full throttle, one of Goya Foods’ assembly lines in Secaucus, N.J., can spit out more than 600 packs of rice and beans per minute. This is just one of Goya’s 26 factories, which together produce more than 2,500 food products.

The brains behind the operation are brothers Bob and Peter Unanue — president and executive vice president, respectively, of what is now the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the U.S. Their grandfather, Prudencio, who immigrated to America from Spain, founded Goya in the late 1930s.

It’s rare to see a family owned company survive in it’s third generation of ownership. According to the Family Firm Institute, only about 30% of family-run businesses make it that far; the rest fail because of poor succession planning. Goya already has fourth and fifth generation family members working inside the company.

Part of its success stems from an ability to adapt. As waves of Hispanic and Latino immigrants made their way to the U.S. after World War II, Goya saw an opportunity to bring them foods from their native lands. For example, Peruvians wanted “Aji Amarillo” or hot yellow pepper paste; Goya made it for them. Dominicans craved “habichuelas con dulce” or cream of beans with coconut; Goya put it in a can.

“There [are] three things people hold on to,” says Bob. “Food, music, and language, and we tie into that emotional tie.”

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Explosive growth in the Hispanic population today offers Goya new opportunities. In 1970, there were just under 10 million Hispanic people living in the U.S.; in 2015, there were 56 million, making them the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority. Indeed, Hispanics are said to control $1.4 trillion in buying power, according to market research company Nielsen. Goya is growing right along with this population, now notching $1.4 billion in annual sales.

“We’ve been synonymous with Hispanics,” Peter says. “We’re blessed to be an example of the American dream.”

Over the years, the company has cast a wider net capturing new generations of consumers, including children and grandchildren of the first wave of Hispanic migrants, along with other Americans diversifying their palates. For example, it now offers microwavable beans instead of the classic dry bean, which you need to soak and boil for hours. Its also added nutritious foods like quinoa as the trend for healthier foods continues.

As it’s grown, Goya has strived to stay authentic. Big box retailers make common mistakes when developing Latin foods: one, for example, is putting jalapeños in everything. “Those are the kinds of missteps [companies make]” says Joseph Perez, senior vice president of Goya.

Beans continue to be the biggest sales category and selling them the right way is where the magic comes in. There’s at least half a dozen different ways to say “bean” in Spanish, and Goya takes that into consideration in its marketing. “We would never do an advertisement in Miami that says Habichuela,” says Perez, “we have to say Frijol… you have to have that richness of detail, that collective memory within the company.”

On cans, it places labels with different Spanish names for the beans on opposite sides, and lets the grocers decide which word to present to its shoppers. “We have a saying in the company,” Bob says, “as Latinos we’re united by language but separated by the bean.”