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As a boy, Roberto Pedro Rodriguez was taught to be a hard worker. One of his first jobs, at age 12, was cutting sugar cane with a machete. Later came roasting peanuts and selling drinking glasses on busy street corners. After he married and became a father, he began working as a truck driver and was later trained as a Spanish baker. Through the years, Rodriguez developed a work ethic that would take him far in life, and ultimately far from his homeland, Cuba.
Born in 1916, he dreamed often of the day when his family would enjoy freedom. Wishing no longer to live under Fidel Castro's communist rule, he and his friends devised in the early Sixties a plan for their families to escape.
After months of planning, 60 people secretly traveled by foot for days until they boarded a fishing vessel. After nearly a week at sea, the group transferred to a British cargo ship bound for the United States. Five days later, on October 24, 1963, the refugees docked in Beaumont, Texas.
Roberto Pedro Rodriguez and his family settled in California's San Fernando Valley. In 1976, they opened a 12,000-square-foot supermarket, El Cubano. In 1996 the family, operating under its third generation, built a second store in nearby Sun Valley. Today, they also own 74 acres of fruit orchards and the real estate occupied by their stores. They have indeed lived the American dream.
According to the Census Bureau, 32.8 million Hispanics resided in the U.S. (excluding Puerto Rico) in 2000 and represented nearly 12 percent of the population. As these numbers increase, supermarket operators are responding by opening a variety of Hispanic formats. What many have quickly learned is that serving the Hispanic community is no simple task. Just ask those who do it best.
El Cubano general manager Alex Rodriguez, 30, grandson of the founder, recites the mantra of his father, Roberto:
1. You gotta be there. Sacrifice whatever time it takes to please the customer.
2. Watch the pennies—and the dollars will take care of themselves.
3. Respect hard work and those who perform it. All employees are important and honorable, from managers to janitors, from meatcutters to produce clerks.
4. Clean, clean, clean. Owner Roberto Rodriguez and his wife, Cristina, define clean as being able to look at the gas tanks on their two semi-trucks and use them as mirrors.
An operator must be able to source products that customers demand. "At El Cubano, we stock many popular American items like Frosted Flakes, Ore-Ida Hash Browns, and Coca-Cola," says Rodriguez. "However, our typical customer also wants to buy unusual items like corn meal from El Salvador; special sodas like CIMA, a sparkling apple drink from Spain; and Guarana, a champagne soda manufactured in Brazil."
He continues, "Coffees and spices are also important to the mix. We have aligned ourselves with importers who specialize in securing these items."
According to Rodriguez, eight of every 10 products sold at El Cubano are produce items, making it the most important department. Quality is a must, and competitive pricing on key items is crucial. Between its two stores, the company sells 25 to 30 pallets of produce daily to nearly 3,500 customers.
Challenges? There are many. Due to a lack of selling space, El Cubano offers no in-store deli or bakery departments. However, the company has in recent months incorporated small prepared foods departments. Cristina Rodriguez is working with an outside marketer to develop a catering division.
Other concerns include rising insurance expenses, loss prevention, collecting vendor/wholesaler credits, managing technology and advertising costs, and product procurement. To that, add competition. Rodriguez says price impact stores are becoming extremely popular within the Hispanic community. "When selling to Hispanics, the name of the game is often price."
Asked how life might be different had his late grandfather not come to America, he replies, "I can only tell you that still today, life for people in Cuba is without hope. Entrepreneurial spirit does not exist and Cubans are completely devoid of liberty. Is it any wonder that they risk their lives floating on man-made rafts through shark-infested waters to reach U.S. soil?"
He concludes, "In America, we have the opportunity to work hard and the sacrifice pays off. How could we not feel blessed for every single day?"
Independent Retailing editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at JanieOT@aol.com.