Goya’s American dream: How Spanish immigrants turned their own cuisine into a billionaire dynasty

The Unanue family story could be the epitome of the American Dream – a handful of Spanish immigrants starting a business that grows to become the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States. 

The Goya brand was founded in 1936 in Manhattan by Prudencio Unanue Ortiz, an immigrant from northern Spain who left at age 17 in 1903 for Puerto Rico searching for employment. He met his wife Carolina Casal, also a Spanish immigrant, and headed to the U.S. in 1918.

Three generations later and the company remains in family control having an estimated value of $3billion.

Now the company is seeing the worst backlash in its history because of pro-Trump comments made Thursday by Goya CEO Robert Unanue, Don Prudencio’s grandson, who previously ousted his uncle and cousin to access his high-powered position.   

The Goya brand was founded in 1936 in Manhattan by Prudencio Unanue Ortiz and his wife Carolina Casal, both immigrants from Spain (pictured) 

Three generations later and the company remains in family control with an estimated value of $3billion and run by Prudencio's grandson Robert Unanue

Three generations later and the company remains in family control having an estimated value of $3billion and run by Prudencio’s grandson Robert Unanue

Robert spoke at a Rose Garden event announcing a ‘Hispanic Prosperity Initiative’ on Thursday.

‘We are all undoubtedly blessed, at precisely the same time, to have have a leader like President Trump who’s a builder,’ Robert said standing at a podium beside Trump.

Robert became CEO in 2004 after ousting his uncle Joseph Unanue (pictured), president of Goya since 1974. Joseph died in 2013

Robert became CEO in 2004 after ousting his uncle Joseph Unanue (pictured), president of Goya since 1974. Joseph died in 2013

Almost immediately, #BoycottGoya, #GoyaFoods and #Goyaway began trending on social media platforms like Twitter, with scorn coming seemingly from all directions, including some big political names.

But Robert doubled down Friday saying, ‘I’m not apologizing,’ and calling the backlash ‘suppression of speech’. 

Robert Unanue has been serving as CEO of Goya Foods since 2004 when he ousted his uncle Joseph Unanue – then president- and cousin Andy Unanue – then-COO – from the business. 

Joseph, a decorated war hero, served as president of Goya Foods from 1974 after taking the reins from his father Prudencio. Don Prudencio died couple of years later in 1976. 

But after 27 years as president, his nephews Robert and Francisco Unanue drove him and his son Andy out, with the support of their shareholders, citing ‘differences of opinions’.  

Robert and Francisco claimed it was as a result of Joseph making decisions without their input. 

‘There were differences of opinion regarding the direction of the company,’ Robert told ABC in 2008. ‘Now, we are all on the same page.’    

The family’s only political involvement was significantly less controversial, with Joseph’s son Andy shortly a candidate for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate Seat for New Jersey in 2008, but dropped out. He is now managing partner of AUA Private Equity Partners, LLC.    

Joseph, a decorated war hero and knight of the Order of Malta, died of pulmonary fibrosis complications in 2013.

Joseph's son Andy Unanue (pictured) was also ousted as COO in 2004. Andy was briefly a candidate for the Republican nomination for a US Senate Seat for New Jersey in 2008, but dropped out. He is now managing partner of AUA Private Equity Partners, LLC

Joseph’s son Andy Unanue (pictured) was also ousted as COO in 2004. Andy was briefly a candidate for the Republican nomination for a US Senate Seat for New Jersey in 2008, but dropped out. He is now managing partner of AUA Private Equity Partners, LLC

Don Prudencio Unanue Ortiz started by selling Spanish condiments in a small storefront on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan

Don Prudencio Unanue Ortiz started by attempting to sell Spanish condiments in a small storefront on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan

Now the largest Hispanic-owned company in the U.S. faces a boycott campaign after CEO Robert praised Donald Trump

 Now the biggest Hispanic-owned company in the U.S. faces a boycott campaign after CEO Robert praised Donald Trump

Long before the family drama, Don Prudencio Unanue Ortiz started by attempting to sell Spanish condiments in a small storefront on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan until the Spanish Civil War cut off his supplies. He began importing sardines from a Moroccan company as an alternative.

The Moroccan company was called ‘Goya’, and Prudencio purchased the rights to the name for $1 because he thought his last name could be too burdensome for American clients to pronounce and for the liking to Spanish painter Francisco Goya. 

He imported old-fashioned Spanish goods like olives, selling them to the fast-growing Spanish community in New York. 

‘Driven by the fact that there was a growing consumer market for high-quality, fresh-tasting, Latin foods, the Unanues catered to local Hispanic families by distributing authentic Spanish products and services including olives, olive oil, and sardines,’ the Goya site reads.  

Prudencio and Carolina had four sons, Charles, Joseph, Anthony and Frank, who were signed up for Catholic school. 

After returning from WWII and graduating Catholic University of America, Joseph joined his brothers Anthony and Frank in running your family business and took over as president of Goya in 1974. 

The company relocated from Manhattan to Brooklyn in 1958 and to New Jersey in 1974, where it currently holds its headquarters.    

Many of the Unanue’s are still New Jersey-based, mostly living in affluent suburbs of Bergen County with many working in your family business. 

Robert, the eldest of six kids, grew up in suburban New Jersey with their Spanish father and Irish mother. 

After returning from WWII and graduating Catholic University of America, Joseph joined his brothers Anthony and Frank in running the family business and took over as president of Goya in 1974. Joseph is pictured in 2009 with wife Carmen and daughter Maribel

After returning from WWII and graduating Catholic University of America, Joseph joined his brothers Anthony and Frank in running your family business and took over as president of Goya in 1974. Joseph is pictured in 2009 with wife Carmen and daughter Maribel 

Robert and Francisco aka Frank (pictured) claimed the ouster was due to Joseph making decisions without their input

Robert and Francisco aka Frank (pictured) claimed the ouster was as a result of Joseph making decisions without their input

Robert Unanue went to the White House and said the country was 'blessed' to have Donald Trump

Robert Unanue went along to the White House and said the united states was ‘blessed’ to have Donald Trump

A year after Robert’s takeover, Goya launched a 10-year strategic plan and invested $500 million in a worldwide expansion to attain new consumers and bolster the Goya brand worldwide.

In 2008, the company was ranked number 377 on a rich list of American companies list by Forbes and was valued at $1.4billion in 2014.  

From 2014 – 2016, Goya opened five new manufacturing and distribution centers in Texas, California, Georgia and New Jersey to meet consumer demands for Goya products and services, according to the Goya site. 

Goya now has 26 facilities through the entire United States, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Spain, and employs over 4,000 world wide. 

Last year the business met with Goldman Sachs and were estimated they could sell for $3 billion but have yet to do so. And until Robert’s recent PR disaster, the COVID-19 was doing wonders for business due to a spike in food demand.  

‘Our beans are flying off the shelves. Sometimes our trucks reach the stores, they don’t allow it to be to the store. The supermarket employees end up attempting to sell them on the sidewalk,’ Robert Unanue said of the pandemic. 

 In March and April of this year, Goya donated over 300,000 pounds of food, or about 270,000 meals, to food banks along with other organizations included in its pandemic relief effort. 

The company said it also donated more 20,000 protective masks. Last month, Goya showed up with thousands of pounds of food to families in the Bronx and Harlem who have been afflicted with COVID-19 and gave food to a public school in Queens.

Goya lists 2,500 products and services, from seasonings and cooking oils, to beans along with other Latin American staples in addition to frozen products and services and snacks. Their offerings are ubiquitous in food markets across the U.S., sometimes taking up their own entire aisle.

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