Latino importer knows his beans
Yvonne Wingett The Arizona Republic Jan. 28, 2006 12:00 AM
Huddled behind two giant computer screens in his Phoenix office, Guadalupe Miranda oversees his bean business operations in Mexico. His pudgy fingers slide over a keyboard, and he peers at the images, transported by live camera feed from 700 miles away in Los Mochis, Sinaloa.
"I'm in constant communication," the 39-year-old man says.
He monitors the business all day, straying only for calls and appointments with distributors, employees and industry watchers throughout the United States and Mexico.
A picture of yellow peruano beans pops onto the screen. "Que bonitos frijoles (what beautiful beans)," he says.
Even he finds it funny that a little legume his grandmother introduced to him when he was a boy in Los Mochis has made him the largest distributor of peruano beans in Arizona.
But it makes sense, he says: The millions of Latino immigrants living in the United States crave the comforts of home, and the peruano bean is a staple of the northern Mexican diet.
Miranda represents a growing number of ethnic entrepreneurs in Arizona and throughout the country who are feeding immigrants' hunger in lucrative niches, experts say, by importing products such as sugarcane-sweetened Coca-Cola, non-vinegar salsas and various chile peppers.
It's difficult to determine how many import companies operate in Arizona and the United States, state economic officials say, because commerce agencies do not track them. But business experts say those like Multienterprise Inc. will continue to be successful as the U.S. Hispanic immigrant population grows and their spending power and ties to home remain strong.
It can be a lucrative opportunity for those who know their market and their product. Miranda knows both.
When he moved on the idea to import peruanos from Sinaloa in 2002, he didn't imagine it would grow into a multimillion-dollar operation. Or that he would become "el rey del frijol," the king of the bean.
Small bean, big idea
Peruano beans were a staple in the Miranda household, just as they are in thousands of northern Mexican kitchens. They tend to be difficult to grow and find in the United States, he says. But the Mexican sun, saline from the sea and soil conditions come together in and around Sinaloa, in northwestern Mexico, to create thousands of acres of crops.
Peruanos, also known as mayocoba beans, are about the size of a small button. They are known for their light, buttery taste. Like pinto beans, they are cooked in broth or refried.
Peruanos are the standard side to meat dishes, and Guadalupe grew up on them in the 1960s, with grandma Lupita Baldenegro cooking them with pork lard, corn and salt. He can't remember sitting down to dinner without them on his plate, he says from Multienterprise's Phoenix conference room.
On one of Miranda's first trips to the Valley in 2000 to visit friends and family, he had a hard time finding the bean at grocery stores and carnicerias. Convinced that other people were "nostalgic" for the peruano bean, the former computer-software entrepreneur researched the bean market, put together a business plan and then a team. On one of his visits, he met Sam Ramirez, a general contractor, who introduced him to Eli Faustinos, a mortgage broker.
He explained his idea, they became partners, and they tested Miranda's hunch.
Using Miranda's relationships with farmers and business people in Mexico, they bought 44,000 pounds of peruanos in 2002. The first truckload, worth $33,000, arrived in an 18-wheeler in March 2002.
"(The beans) sold right away," Miranda said. "(People) loved the frijol. So we brought in more. Instead of being the little guys, with just one or two (truckloads) at a time, we needed to be competitive. We set out to be Number 1 in the market. Number 1 in peruanos."
Miranda, Latinos cash in Miranda is one of the country's 2 million Hispanic entrepreneurs and is no different than any other retailer who has established a niche in the market.
In Arizona, about 12 percent of the Valley's Hispanic-owned companies do international business, according to the SRP Arizona Hispanic-owned Business Study sponsored by Salt River Project and the Hispanic Research Center of Arizona State University. The 12 percent figure includes import, consulting and online companies that help drive the state's economy. And just like Miranda, one in three Hispanic businesses is started by an immigrant.
"Whether it's leather goods, meat products, clothing, fine jewelry, manufacturing technology or art, you're seeing now what will be the wave of the future, from an international entrepreneurial perspective," says Loui Olivas, assistant vice president for academic affairs at ASU who studies the Hispanic market.
"The (Latino) population and the opportunity to satisfy a need within that population will only grow," he said. "Once established, it's an incredible, growing industry. They're providing revenue for a local economy and more options in the grocery stores, and that diversification 10 years ago didn't exist. They've figured it out."
But the instant success surprised Miranda. He and a team worked to acquire more beans.
By June 2002, two to three trucks a month were bringing in the beans.
Over the next few months, they rounded up $500,000 from private investors to start Multienterprise Inc. They helped set up Cintar, a bean export business in Mexico that gathers, processes and stores the beans. They got to know bean distributors in the United States and farmers in Sinaloa.
They sold 1,500 tons of peruanos the first year and made $1.5 million in sales. Demand for the peruano beans doubled in 2003 and so did sales. Over the next two years, Multienterprise established a well-run distribution chain, buying the beans from Cintar, storing some in Sinaloa and some in Nogales, Mexico, awaiting orders from U.S. distributors. The company helped stock shelves of mom-and-pop shops and chain grocers, including Food City, Fry's Food Stores and Ranch Market.
Miranda and his partners crisscrossed the country, working deals in Spanish and English with distributors from New York to Seattle, Los Angeles to Chicago. They drove 12 hours to Los Mochis during harvest, checking out crops and production operations and attending business expos.
They landed major agreements to supply peruanos to two major Hispanic food companies, Goya, and El Mexicano, and ended last year with a client list of 73 distributors and $11 million in sales.
"In our product, we've taken over," Miranda says. Multienterprise's chief competitor, he says, is a Sonora-based company.
There have been challenges along the way. They have had to scramble to arrange for shipments of peruanos when crops in Sinaloa were poor or demand too high.
And in 2004, a Mexican gang hijacked a trailer filled with $70,000 worth of peruanos. Miranda launched an investigation, found the truck empty at a gas station in Hermosillo and the beans in a house in Obregn, Sonora. The incident went down as "Operativo: Frijol (Operation: Bean)."
Miranda, Faustinos and Ramirez are at the beginning of their fifth peruano harvest. They returned this week from a trip to Los Mochis, upbeat that farmers believe it's going to be a healthy season for peruanos. They hope to import 12,000 tons this year, 10 times as much as their first-year volume.
Demand on the rise
Demand for the yellow bean, they say, is increasing as more immigrants from northern Mexico move to here and others discover them as a substitute for pinto beans.
"This bean is one of those pieces of home that you can't get anywhere else, and it can't really be reproduced by any other kind of bean," says Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, a Nogales, Ariz.-based group representing U.S. produce importers. "It's almost impossible to find. When you do find it, it's outrageously expensive, relative to what it costs in Nogales, Sonora."
Peruanos typically cost about $1.25 a pound in the Valley, twice as expensive as pintos, depending on the market. It's a price many are willing to pay, Miranda says, because of taste and half of the cooking time of the pinto.
"It used to be that Hispanic (women) were not so focused on time," he says.
"The wife stayed home and cooked beans for three hours. Now that they're getting used to the fast-paced life in the U.S., time is important, and if they can save an hour, it's worth it."
It has been worth it for Miranda, too. Back in his office, he sits in front of the high-tech monitors, among wide-mouth Ball jars filled with peruanos, garbanzos and a dozen other types of beans.
He points to a wall behind him, the one plastered with maps of the world and "Republica Mexicana." The maps remind him of his "global vision."
Miranda traces a finger from Mexico, across the Atlantic Ocean. He helped negotiate Multienterprises's first international shipments in 2003 to supply garbanzo beans to Portugal and the Middle East.
"Somos el rey del frijol (We are the king of the bean)," he said.
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