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Bodegas Cater To Diverse Tastes

By Jeff Oliver | Sentinel Staff Writer

June 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

La Borinqueña Market.

Luis Burgos, part-owner of El Mundo Supermarket in Winter Park, listens to what his customers call each other. By now he knows he can greet the Mexican men as vato or buey, the Colombians as hermano, and most everyone else as campión.

Business at the bodega, as such Hispanic markets are called, is good these days. Sales have tripled since Burgos, his brother Ray and their father, Raymundo, all from the Dominican Republic, opened the store two years ago.

The market's four aisles are lined with an ever-evolving selection of food, providing what might be the most current picture of the neighborhood's shifting demographics. Mexicans and Argentines, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, more and more Colombians -- they're coming often and they are buying more.

The story is similar for many of the region's bodegas.

At La Borinqueña Market in Longwood, for example, owner Reyes Leon says he takes in $1,000 on a good day, $700 to $800 on a slow one. That's up from the $200 to $300 per day he averaged when he opened in March 2002. At El Bravo, a bodega in Azalea Park, owner Jimmy Peña is already looking to open other stores elsewhere in Orlando.

The image seems impossibly quaint, even naïve -- the thought that anything other than sheer size and convenience can compete with size and convenience. Yet the Orlando area's many "mamá y papá" bodegas seem to be thriving even as the large supermarket chains spend more time, energy and shelf space courting Hispanic shoppers.

There are more than 30 bodegas in the Orlando area. The stores usually sell whatever food the neighborhood's Hispanic population is buying -- typically, lots of fresh produce, meat and bread, hot Hispanic food like empanadas, and some country-specific specialties. Much smaller then supermarkets, bodegas tend to consist of five to seven aisles. Most include a deli in the back or off to the side.

The stores are so common in Latin America that many Hispanics talk about the "tradition of the bodega." It's an institution that involves more than groceries -- it's about community, family and what Luis and Ray Burgos call the detalles Latinos.

Those "Latin details," as the Burgos define them, consist more or less of everything that Hispanics can't find at a conventional U.S. supermarket.

At El Mundo, "the Latin details" means that if the three young men from Oaxaca, Mexico, come to buy two weeks' worth of groceries, one of the Burgos places a free loaf of Cuban bread in their bag while another brings his car around front to give the Mexicans a ride home.

It means knowing which phone cards work best when calling Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico or Panama. And which ones don't seem to work at all.

It's not enough to know that this year's Miss Universe, Amelia Vega, is from the Dominican Republic. You should also know that her father is a doctor with offices in New York, and her mother was also a beauty queen, though now she has a pilot's license. If someone brings it up, it means expressing the appropriate level of relief that they didn't find cork in any of Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa's other baseball bats.

In short, it means everyone is family; and usually it means most of the workers in the store are, quite literally, family. At El Mundo, for example, Luis and Ray's sister Vanessa Burgos, 28 -- a behavioral therapist with a master's degree in psychology -- runs a cash register on the weekends, along with her cousin, Fredy Gonzalez, a social worker in South Florida.

Grocery chains catch on

Mainstream supermarkets have carried token amounts of Hispanic foods since the 1960s. The products were, and in many cases still are, mixed in with other ethnic fare.

But in recent years, the big chains have begun courting the Hispanic shopper in earnest, especially in Central Florida, where the Hispanic population is one of the fastest-growing in the country.

With expanded selections, bilingual employees, and signs and ads in Spanish, the chain stores are doing their best to assure Hispanic customers that they have graduated from the old days of a single, 10- to 15-foot-long shelf of ethnic food.

"It's like organic foods. I think Hispanic food is really the next wave," said Jason Whitmer, a supermarket analyst for FTN Midwest, an Ohio-based research firm.

In Central Florida, some supermarkets have moved quicker than others to catch that wave. The Winn-Dixie on Semoran Boulevard in Azalea Park, for example, had Spanish-language signs as early as 1998. But a couple of recent events have brought the Hispanic community into sharper focus for the industry both locally and nationwide.

The first and most obvious was the 2000 U.S. Census, which found that Orlando's Hispanic population had grown from 94,658 in 1990 to 271,425 -- a 186 percent increase.

Second, but perhaps more influential, was a report released last year by the Food Marketing Institute in Washington, D.C. The industry group concluded that, while the average U.S. shopper spends $87 a week on groceries, the average Hispanic shopper spends $117.

The study, "U.S. Hispanics: Insights Into Grocery Shopping Preferences and Attitudes, 2002," also found that Hispanics respond well to Spanish-language advertising, demand high-quality produce and meats, and are typically willing to shop around for price. The study also found that 60 percent of Hispanic shoppers buy specific brands according to family preferences, and 45 percent will try a new brand only if family or friends recommend it.

"People have noticed, but they've never realized the potential of it," said Michelle Del Toro Jaketic, the institute's research manager and author of the study.

In reacting to both the census and Jaketic's study, supermarkets in Orlando and elsewhere are adopting tactics that can best be described as bodega-like.

The Publix store in the Lake Fredrica Center on Semoran Boulevard, for example, recently took its 75-foot-long selection of Hispanic food and distributed the products throughout the store. Seasonings went to the seasoning section, grains with the grains, sauces with the sauces, and so on.

The goal: To help Hispanics feel more at home in the store and encouraging them to shop all the aisles, said Chuck Jones, purchasing manager at Paskert Distributing Co., a Hispanic-food wholesaler in Tampa.

Paskert, which has specialized in Spanish foods since 1987, was hired by Publix to rearrange the Semoran store. During the past two years, Paskert's sales to chain stores in the Orlando area have increased 10 percent to 12 percent annually, Jones said. The majority of the growth comes from two chains: Lakeland-based Publix and Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie.

Publix is the most aggressive chain, according to Jones. The state's largest supermarket company reported a double-digit increase last year in Hispanic food sales. Maria Rodamis, a Publix spokeswoman, said employees are receiving "continuous training" on how to prepare Hispanic cuisine.

Winn-Dixie, Publix's prime competitor, launched a Spanish-language advertising campaign about a year and a half ago. The tag line, El Savor de Tu Pais, means "The Flavor of Your Country."

"Our stores cater to the neighborhood," said Kathy Lussier, a Winn-Dixie spokeswoman. "I was happy to find out that the best-selling product at the SaveRite on Semoran Boulevard is the 25-pound bag of Rico Rice." SaveRite is Winn-Dixie's warehouse brand, while Rico Rice is a product of Puerto Rico.

"They want it," Osmel Santana, president of Santana Enterprises Inc., said of Winn-Dixie's interest in the Hispanic market. "They know the community. They want the people in their store." Santana, whose company distributes Puerto Rican products, said sales to chain stores, particularly Winn-Dixie, have risen rapidly in recent years.

Domestic makers of Hispanic food have also benefited from the chains' increasing interest. Sixto Ferro, vice president of Conchita Foods Inc. in Miami, says Orlando sales of Conchita products -- everything from canned tropical fruits to rice -- have increased five times during the past 18 months.

'Huge competition'

As businesses tend to do when they find themselves chasing the same dollars in the same market, bodegas and supermarkets say that, for the most part, they are not competing at all.

But Jaketic, the food-marketing expert, says bodegas and supermarkets are certainly on opposite sides of the same playing field. "It's a huge competition," she said. "I think the bodegas threaten the supermarkets more than the supermarkets threaten the bodegas."

A bodega's ability to mold itself to the neighborhood -- focusing not just on "Hispanic" foods but on Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian or Mexican specialties, for example -- combined with employees' knowledge of Latino culture and cuisine, and customers' preference for speaking Spanish, constitute a "recipe for success," Jaketic said.

And with relatively low overhead, bodegas typically charge less than supermarkets for many of the same goods.

Jones, who was a buyer for a supermarket chain before joining Paskert, says large groceries have been too slow to see the potential of Hispanic shoppers.

"The market developed over time, and chains failed to realize the needs of that customer," he said. "This caused the customer to go completely to the bodega, or split the shopping between the bodega and the supermarket."

To make up lost ground, supermarkets have at times resorted to selling staples such as rice and beans at prices so low that the store actually loses money on those products. The hope is that, once the customer enters the store, collateral sales will inevitably result.

In some cases, bodegas are beginning to notice the increased competition. Pedro Aybar, part-owner of Compare Supermarket, said a recently opened SaveRite on East Colonial Drive in Orlando has siphoned about $3,000 a week in sales from his store.

Still, Aybar said he continues to sell about 400 loaves of fresh bread each day, and gains new customers each week. "We worry, but we're good," he said.

Fresh empanadas

By 8:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday, the first batch of bread was mostly sold at La Borinqueña Market, the Longwood bodega. The fresh empanadas were steaming up the display case.

Julio Roman, a Puerto Rican Jehovah's Witness, dropped in during a break from proselytizing. He had already taken one empanada out to his wife, who was waiting in the car, and was munching on one of his own.

He said he frequents the bodega because he enjoys buying the food that he likes made by people he likes. And he doesn't always like how he's treated in some supermarkets.

He recalled a recent supermarket trip in search of a 12-pack of beer. When he discovered that all of the 12-packs had been stored at room temperature, Roman did what he thought was fair, takingtwo six-packs from the cooler and asking if he could get them for the price of a 12-pack. The cashier balked at the deal."The lady said, 'What you see is what you get,' " Roman said. "She made me look bad in front of all those people -- she treated me like a dog. It's that sort of thing that sometimes pushes you away."

Erma Santiago, 48, and her husband, Fernando, 43, both from Puerto Rico, entered La Borinqueña later that morning with their daughter and son-in-law in tow.

Reyes Leon, the bodega's owner, met the family at the door with a flurry of greetings, calling Fernando "papa" and commiserating about the heat.

The Santiagos are regulars at the bodega. They were there that day for the empanadas -- and because Erma Santiago wanted her daughter and son-in-law, Jeanette and John Sisco, to finally make the move from Arizona to Florida.

The Siscos had been in town for a few days, and the bodega was part of the sales pitch. "You don't find our food like this in Arizona," Jeanette Sisco said.

Her husband said they would be moving as soon as they sold the house in Arizona.

Top 10 grocery features for Hispanics

When deciding where to shop for groceries Hispanics rate these supermarket features very important.

Supermarket feature Total U.S. Hispanics? All U.S. shoppers
Fresh, high-quality fruits 97% 87%
Clean, neat store 96% 89%
Courteous, friendly employees 94% 78%
Fresh, high-quality meats 91% 84%
Low prices 92% 84%
Convenient location 84% 80%
Personal safety outside store 84% 60%
Fast checkout 84% 60%
Nutrition information available 81% 38%
Bilingual employees 79% --

Source: Food Marketing Institute

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