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Hispanic businesses increase as Hispanic community grows

Richmond Times - Dispatch - Richmond, Va.
JUAN ANTONIO LIZAMA TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Published: October 13, 2009

 

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When Samuel Facundo came to Henrico County 20 years ago, he could not find a place to buy tortillas, a staple food from his native country, Mexico.

"We used to go to Woodbridge [where some friends lived] to buy tortillas," the 52-year-old said.

Two years ago, Facundo and his brother bought Tortilleria San Luis, a tortilla and taco business on Quioccasin Road in western Henrico. Facundo's wife, Catalina, runs the business.

"He saw this as an opportunity because there are no other tortillerias around here," she said.

At least one operates in South Richmond and another in Chesterfield County's Meadowbrook area.

As the Hispanic population has boomed in the Richmond area, so have Hispanic-owned businesses.

To honor the contributions of Hispanics in the United States, the federal government designated Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month. It was started in 1968 as a weekly event but expanded to a month in 1988.

In a 2006 report, the U.S. Census Bureau said that there were nearly 1.6 million Hispanic-owned businesses nationwide in 2002, and they generated about $222 billion in revenues. Nearly 19,000 of those firms were in Virginia that year.

Local governments don't have data available on the number of Hispanic-owned businesses. The Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is working on collecting that information, chamber president Michel Zajur said.

But the growth of Hispanic-owned businesses is visible, said Harold Vega, who opened Chicken Fiesta on Midlothian Turnpike in Chesterfield County four years ago.

"I love Richmond because it's an area that is growing," he said. "I see the growing of the Latino businesses parallel to the growth of the Latino community."

Certain corridors in the area are being redeveloped in part because of Hispanic businesses, Zajur said.

"I'm thinking of places like the Hull Street and Jefferson Davis corridors," he said. "They're putting life back into neighborhoods that were really falling apart."

Groceries, markets, restaurants and nightclubs, hair salons, Christian bookstores and mechanics shops have clustered along those corridors over the years.

"I think that for the most part they do the traditional thing, what they know how to do: the restaurants, the bodegas, the markets," Zajur said of Hispanic business owners. "But I think there are some very creative companies that are doing different things."

For example, Zajur said, Pedro Rodriguez, a licensed pilot, buys used planes here and sells them in Venezuela. Someone from New Jersey is trying to expand his imported raw spices business in Richmond, and another wants to open an Internet café, he said.

. . .

The Facundos' tortilla and taco business generates enough to pay the bills, Catalina Facundo said.

On average, the business processes about 1,250 pounds of flour a month for the tacos sold there and for the corn tortillas sold to individuals and special parties, she said. Each batch of about 30 tortillas sells for $2.50 plus tax.

The edge the family's business has over commercial tortillas is the homemade freshness, she said.

"You don't notice the difference in the taste until you try the freshly made tortillas," said Maria Soza, Facundo's daughter who works part time at the tortilleria.

But they can't please everybody either, Soza said.

"We have several people who want flour tortillas or Salvadoran-style tortillas," which are thicker, she said.

. . .

The Richmond market for businesses catering to Hispanics is complicated because of the diversity, Alberto Ojeda, president of the Virginia Latino Chamber of Commerce.

"We come from all places -- Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru," he said. "So much diversity makes it hard for a business to succeed in a big way. You can't specialize in one group. So businesses cater to everybody."

Goya Foods Inc., which opened a plant in Prince George County three years ago, thrives on that diversity, said Luis A. Ramos, general manager.

To satisfy the many tastes of Latin Americans immigrants, Goya offers 1,600 different products, Ramos said. Some of those products are variations.

"We have about 40 different types of beans," he said.

. . .

Most Hispanic-owned businesses are just surviving, with the exception of some that are expanding, Ojeda said.

One of the things he's trying to do through the chamber is help people who want to open a business see the need to do a market study before launching a business. He's seen too many examples of individuals who see a successful business and want to do the same thing in the same area.

"Later, you have four, five or six businesses doing the same thing," he said. "That weakens everybody. To succeed, we need to innovate."

Zajur said his chamber encourages Hispanic business owners to venture into the mainstream market to have better growth opportunities.

"If you're marketing to Latinos, that's about 5 percent of the population you're marketing your product to, and you're leaving out the other 95 percent," he said.

Daniel Rodriguez, a native of Venezuela and owner of Rockfish Graphix, a graphics and Web-site development business in downtown Richmond, focuses his company more on American businesses and has few Hispanic clients.

American businesses "know that they need to advertise," Rodriguez said. "The Hispanics, not everybody, but a large majority, they don't see that. You have to convince them and even then, they don't see why."

Vega, a native of Colombia, said he struggled with his Peruvian-style Chicken Fiesta business when he opened it four years ago. His clientele consisted mostly of Hispanics.

But a review last year introduced his restaurant to the mainstream market, and his business took off, he said. He recently opened a second restaurant in the Merchants Walk shopping center off Broad Street in Henrico.

"If you ask me, I would have not survived with Latinos only," he said. "On the other hand, I couldn't survive with Americans only either. I need both."