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With 3rd Generation at Helm, Latino Food Giant Goya Aims Even Higher

The Family Behind the 80-year Success of Goya Foods 4:22

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — The windowed corner office of the president of Goya Foods is as homey as it is corporate. It is full of memorabilia: family photos, awards, an enlarged Crain’s New York Business article, a Goya Foods poster featuring the flags of Latin America bearing the legend, “United by language, separated by the bean.” There is even a cowboy hat perched jauntily on a conga drum.

But the name on the office may surprise people. Although Goya Foods remains a family-owned company, the family that owns it is named Unanue.

Robert Unanue, president of Goya Foods, explained to NBC News that it was his grandfather Prudencio Unanue who founded the company in 1936. Prudencio Unanue was an immigrant from Spain who first settled in Puerto Rico, and then in New York City.

Prudencio Unanue imported Spanish products until the Spanish Civil War disrupted his business. Unable to get goods from Spain, Prudencio Unanue switched to Moroccan imports — one of which was a can of sardines bearing the name “Goya.”

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Liking the name’s association with the great Spanish painter and the fact that it was easy to pronounce, Unanue bought the name for a dollar. The Unanue family has been behind the Goya brand ever since.

“Our grandfather took a leap into the great unknown (when he came here). He was looking for a taste of home, and he also provided a taste of home for everybody else that was coming to this country,” said Unanue. “As an immigrant, if you're coming in from Puerto Rico, Peru, Mexico, wherever you're coming in from… he made sure that the product that they were looking for was authentic.”

Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, Goya Foods is now cementing its iconic status as the country’s largest Hispanic foods company while simultaneously reaching further into the mainstream market. It employs over 4,500 people worldwide and produces and distributes over 2,500 products. In the U.S., Goya products are sold everywhere from corner bodegas to Costco.

That Goya Foods has such a long legacy of being at the forefront of Latino cuisine in the U.S. is no accident, said Unanue. There are three things that immigrants typically hold on to in a new country, he noted: their language, their music, and their food.

“Food is a great connection," said Unanue. Over the years, the company has harnessed their culinary connection to the nation's Latino immigrants, expanding it by becoming involved in the community's arts and sports programs. "And that makes everybody feel part of Goya as a family," he said.

The Unanue family, and by extension Goya Foods, pride themselves on being an institution that is an intrinsic part of the Latino experience. Unanue said that when he meets people, they often tell him that they grew up on the company’s products.

“They say I remember your slogans, I remember that you were in my neighborhood, you were part of my life growing up,” he said. “That’s what makes us more than just a food company. We’ve become part of the culture and that’s really exciting.”

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The Unanue family’s stewardship of Goya Foods is striking considering that, according to the Family Business Institute, only 12 percent of family-owned businesses reach the third generation. In contrast, at Goya Foods there are already fourth-generation Unanues working at the company (Robert Unanue first worked for the company at age ten when he spent a week working on a production line in Brooklyn for fifty cents an hour). Other employees have been with the company as long as 35 years.

Peter Unanue, Executive Vice President of Goya Foods, said that the company’s growth has paralleled the growth of the Latino population in the U.S.

As Hispanics arrived here from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries, the firm has continuously expanded its offerings. “That how we became what we call la gran familia Goya,” he said. This includes not only the Unanue family and their employees, he said, but the millions of consumers who enjoy their products as well.

Goya Foods, ranked by Forbes in 2015 as a $1.5 billion-in-sales business, has been investing heavily in reaching new consumers. Moving beyond the traditional Latino staples, Goya also offers gluten-free, low sodium, organic, and Kosher products. The company has 26 facilities throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Spain.

With this growth and success, however, have come challenges. Last month, a federal judge ruled that a lawsuit alleging that Goya Foods substituted squid for octopus in certain products could move forward. The company has faced union troubles, and product recalls over food safety concerns.

The Unanues themselves have seen their share of infighting. In 2004, the Wall Street Journal reported on a dispute over the direction of the company that led to the ousting of two family members as chief executive and as chief operating officer.

“Working with your family has its pros and cons. Mostly pros,” Peter Unanue told NBC News. “We all share a common vision; we all want what's best for the company for the employees for growth. So it's a lot of fun.” He added that he always did his best to separate business from personal matters.

“It's a little bit difficult when we disagree,” he said. “But for the most part, you know, we have a common vision.”

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Both Unanue brothers agree that the key to the company’s success is that it offers authentic, nutritious food. Robert Unanue pointed that many Goya products, like their beans, are not only good but highly nutritious.

In 2011, Goya Foods was honored by President Obama for its commitment to the Latino community. In 2012, the company teamed up with First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her campaign to promote healthy eating.

Robert Unanue believes that if his grandfather Prudencio could see the company that he founded decades ago, he would be amazed.

“He planted that seed and there's so many people on the way that have worked in this company, who have come and gone, good friends, family members, employees – and they have built this,” he said. “I think he’d be so proud of planting the seed, and then seeing all the love, dedication, and hard work that was put behind bringing in that crop.”

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