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Food responders

A conversation with Goya President Bob Unanue

While supermarkets struggle to replenish stocks of some food products, one brand seems to be readily available: Goya Foods. Bob Unanue, the Jersey City-based company’s president, recently talked with NJBIZ about the challenges of feeding the country and world during the COVID-19 pandemic. The interview has been edited for clarity.

NJBIZ: In March alone, sales for Goya products quadrupled, and Goya distributed over 23 million cans of beans to retailers. Tell me what’s flying off the shelves.

Bob Unanue: One of our main product lines is beans, and dry beans are selling more than canned beans. What beans offer, and where we’ve been focusing a lot, is [they have] protein, fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients. If you combine beans with rice, you get a complete protein. We sell a lot of rice and a lot of beans. Most of our market uses both in some combination or another.

Bob Unanue, president, Goya.

Bob Unanue, president, Goya. – AARON HOUSTON

Smithfield closed a couple plants, and the meat industry is suffering [because at meat factories] you can have contamination because there’s not a kill step, it’s not processed. Your dry beans are boiled, and that’s a kill step, which kills viruses.

Q. At the grocery store recently, despite some bare shelves elsewhere in the store, the canned food aisle was well stocked with Goya products. What makes your company so quick to respond when others can’t?

A. This isn’t our first rodeo. [Superstorm] Sandy, Irma in Puerto Rico – we have a history of not only donating, but being first responders. In Puerto Rico, there was no help to be had being an isolated island. FEMA could not get into the bay with the bay entrance blocked, no one was working, there was nobody to take the containers off the pier. So we had people knocking on our door, even though we were hit and down several days, we have our own generators. We’re used to working in in emergency situations even though there isn’t one all the time. We have power plants and wells in our factories. We can get ourselves up and going in order to respond.

It’s not about the volume, it’s about us having the inventory … we had substantial inventory of finished goods and substantial raw materials when the COVID-19 pandemic started. We produce, we can, we package. We didn’t rely on outside sources to replenish. We’re replenishing, but that comes in at a much slower pace. A lot of companies found themselves flatfooted without inventory, and we found ourselves in our industry as the only product on the shelf.

We prioritize everyone, from the mom and pop to the biggest stores. We have our own fleet of trucks. We have independent drivers that rent tucks and we go door-to-door everyday delivering all over the country and the world.

The president wants to get everyone back to work, but we never stopped. We’re a critical industry and we consider ourselves first responders. I believe you’ve got to be fearful enough to be safe and have good practices, but not so fearful that you’re paralyzed. We’re paralyzed as a country, and the effects of that can be much more devastating than the loss of life we’ve already had.

Q. Tell me about the scenes at your factories—increased productivity and output?

A. We’ve had to make adjustments, adding shifts. Besides our normal sanitary precautions, we’re adding the sanitizing, the scrubbing, the social distancing. We’re providing food to our staff, not only production but our offices, so that people don’t have to worry about going out.

I’m so proud of our Goya family as heroes. They feel a sense that if they don’t do it, no one is going to do it. Sometimes our product is the only product on the shelf, and that becomes a sense of pride for us, too. Other companies have had trouble replenishing because they started out with thin inventory and thin raw materials. We know at any moment that our product could be needed.

Q. What supply chain issues are you facing?

A. We distribute ourselves. That’s one of the reasons we’re able to get product to the market as far as replenishment. Where we’re finding the biggest challenges is not the transit time—it’s the availability of equipment. Where you usually could get a truck or something right away, it can take weeks. So if you don’t have enough supply of your packaging materials, raw materials, or even finished goods, you’re now running out of products. We just installed new rail sidings in New Jersey where we do some production and we can ship by rail. Besides ocean freight, it’s your cheapest freight by pound in a boxcar. Piggyback – which is where you put a box on a flatbed – is cheaper than over the road, but more expensive than a boxcar where you can put a big amount of product on a closed car. They are for longer distances and take longer, but you have to plan ahead.

As far as the product we receive from overseas, there’s been a huge problem. If you bring coconut water from Thailand, what usually would take a couple of weeks is now taking a couple of months. The containers in the piers are quarantined or held up. The ocean cargo has been affected greatly. Trucking and rail domestically has been challenged because there’s all of a sudden so much product trying to move but only so many trucks and trailers.

Since we had that cushion and had the cushion on raw materials, the fact that a truck that could get here in a couple of days is taking a couple of weeks doesn’t really affect us, but it affects others.

Q. Gov. Phil Murphy enacted an executive order that raised the allowable weight of trucks carrying essential goods. Did that have a big effect on your business?

A. That helps, but one of the things that helped more is the U.S. Department of Transportation [relaxing] requirements that you can only be on the road a certain amount of time. Because of [the executive order], we’re loading our trucks more, there’s fewer stops and more products. As far as the DOT time limit for people on the road, which is an important safety factor and which were recently tightened for electronic logging of drivers, [relaxing the restrictions] helped for us to be able to distribute a longer time window.

In anticipation of the impact of COVID-19, on March 16 Jersey City-based Goya Foods announced it donated 18,225 meals to students of six New York City high schools. Each student received a bag filled with a 5-pound bag of Goya rice, a 1-pound bag of Goya black beans, a 1-pound bag of Goya pink beans and two 16.9-ounce containers of Goya coconut water. The first donation was made by Goya executives at the Food and Finance High School on March 13, with the remainder distributed over the next week.

In anticipation of the impact of COVID-19, on March 16 Jersey City-based Goya Foods announced it donated 18,225 meals to students of six New York City high schools. Each student received a bag filled with a 5-pound bag of Goya rice, a 1-pound bag of Goya black beans, a 1-pound bag of Goya pink beans and two 16.9-ounce containers of Goya coconut water. The first donation was made by Goya executives at the Food and Finance High School on March 13, with the remainder distributed over the next week. – GOYA FOODS

Q. Do you think that, post-pandemic, you’ll have a new group of brand-loyal customers?

A. Yes, definitely. We’re the number-one seller behind private labels. In our whole product line, we sell about 2,500 products. We do the demographics state by state, city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood—knowing who’s in every corner of the country and being able to reach them by doing direct to store, we are able to provide a portfolio.

[We can ask retailers,] ‘Who’s in your neighborhood? Are they Indian, are they African-American, are they Latino, are they general market?’

Q. What’s the breakdown like—what consumers like which types of beans?

A. You have large consumption by groups. Lentils and chickpeas in particular [are popular] in the Indian community [and] the Italian community. We say as Latinos, we’re united in language, but we’re separated by the bean. Every group has their favorite bean. It’s kind of interesting.

You have black beans consumed by Brazilians, Cubans, Mexicans, by Venezuelans. Everyone has different names for them. Pinto beans, which is one of your next biggest crops, [are consumed by] a lot of Mexicans, along with small red beans, which go into your chili. Similar in size but different in color is your pink bean, which is very particular to your Puerto Rican community. For Central Americans, you have silk beans, which goes to Nicaraguan, El Salvadoran, and Guatemalan [consumers]. You have beans in South America for the Colombians and Peruvians. Lentils [go to] Indians, Dominicans, and general market. What makes the tie is the brand.

In one neighborhood, you’re not going to have 2,500 products being relevant, but the ones that are, they see that Goya has what they like and that it’s authentic. We have quality and authenticity and we know what our consumers want. We provide that, and it builds loyalty.

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.

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