A Man for All Sazones: Bob Unanue and the Future of Goya Foods

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S1: Hi, this is Seth before we get started. Just wanted to let you know there are some cuss words in this episode, so please be advised. President Trump held a special event in the White House Rose Garden in July. Well, thank you very much for this great honor to be with you. The occasion was an executive order creating something called the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative. Very exciting. Very exciting. During the ceremony, the president announced the appointment of several politicians and business leaders to a committee tasked with, quote, improving Hispanic Americans access to educational and economic opportunity and freedom for our nation’s.

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S2: Really, it’s a treasure. You are a treasure. The Hispanic Americans and the Hispanic American community is a treasure.

S3: Thank you.

S1: Among these designated luminaries was Bob Nanoha.

S4: Thank you very much, Joe. Good afternoon, Mr. President. Good afternoon, everyone. It’s such an honor and such a blessing to be here in the greatest country in the world, the most prosperous country in the world, and we continue to grow.

S1: Bob is the third generation of Woonona ways to helm Goya Foods, a family owned brand that sells things like beans, rice, sauces and seasonings. Not only mostly used his White House speech to announce that he was donating a million cans of Goya chickpeas to various food banks around the country. But midway through his remarks, he raised his hand and gestured toward the president and he took the opportunity to toss in this fateful aside today.

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S4: It gives me great honor. And by the way, we’re all truly blessed at the same time to have a leader like President Trump who is a builder. And that’s what my grandfather did. He came to this country to build, to grow, to prosper. And so we have an incredible builder and we pray. We pray for our leadership, our president, and we pray for our country that we will continue to prosper and to grow.

S1: It was just a brief detour amidst news of a speech that would otherwise have gotten no media attention, but it set off a firestorm by the next day. CNN was reporting on it as a developing story.

S5: A big backlash today, a campaign to boycott Goya Foods after their CEO praised the president. Some prominent Democrats getting in on the campaign. Julian Castro, quote, Americans should think twice before buying their products. And then this from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Oh, look, it’s the sound of me Googling How to make your own adobo.

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S1: That CNN segment also featured commentator Ana Navarro, who’s accused Bob Woonona way of, quote, acting as a prop for a guy who puts brown children in cages.

S6: I think Goya is a great family immigrant story. I’ve known them to be good corporate citizens, but this really strikes at a wound. This is pouring salt into the wound of a Latino community. That is his consumer base. That is most of his customers.

S1: What happens when a CEO endangers his own brand as it faces backlash and boycotts? Can this family held company keep things in the family? Or were those Rose Garden remarks enough to lose baboon’s anyway the job he was born into?

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S7: I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.

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S8: Today on the show, a man for all seasons, Bob Boonen Away and the Future of Foods.

S4: Our company was founded in 1936 by my grandfather, who left Spain at only 18 years old, did not know where he was heading, but he was heading and looking for opportunity and prosperity. And he found it in this great country.

S9: In the non-controversial portion of his White House speech, Baboun Gannaway recounted the origin story of Goya Foods. Bob’s grandfather, Prudencio Dunaway, emigrated first to Puerto Rico and then on to New York City, where he opened a store in Lower Manhattan. He sold things like olive oil and sardines, mostly to fellow Spanish immigrants. He called his store Goya. It’s a name he bought off a Moroccan sardine supplier who was willing to let it go for one dollar. He chose it in part because he liked the association with the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, and in part because he was afraid that Nottoway was too hard to pronounce. Goya sales blossomed as waves of Spanish speaking immigrants from other parts of the world started arriving in New York. As the business picked up, Goya abandoned its early foothold in Manhattan and moved first to Brooklyn in the 1950s and then out to New Jersey, where in 1974 it opened a large headquarters in warehouse Prudencio.

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S1: Conaway died in 1976 and control of Goya shifted to his son Joseph. By the 1980s. Under Joseph’s direction, Goya was running some ads that sounded like this one from Goya, Puerto Rico.

S10: Yes, that was so bad that it got the whole idea that home plate don’t ask a comparable sexy chemos that nobody to fill in the. And last night, he said they must go.

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S1: Yes, yes, I guess, but it was also running some ads that sounded like this.

S5: I want to teach you a new word from GooYa Suzanne. Suzanne Malveaux. Suzanne, it makes her every day dish is certainly terrific. Not different, just terrific. You don’t even change the recipe says I’m GooYa. Oh, boy.

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S9: Yeah, that’s Jewish American Broadway actress Zora Lampert teasing viewers a brand new Spanish word and promising that an exotic spice won’t make their dishes different and will require them to change any recipes. This was Gorgias, two track strategy keep on serving the growing Latino market, but also run English language ads to reach new customers. The strategy worked decade after decade. By the late 1990s, Goya had 2000 employees with 700 million dollars a year in sales, which now has four thousand employees with sales of one point five billion dollars a year. Lydia Distiller’s is a reporter who visited Goya’s headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, a few years back when she profiled the company for The Washington Post.

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S11: I wanted to know what was the conscious marketing strategy behind a brand that had become so ubiquitous and so many things to so many people, because you don’t just do that by accident.

S1: By the time Lydia visited Babou, Norway had taken over a CEO from his uncle Joseph, who died in 2013. The unanalyzed told media that they credit GooYa success to its authenticity. As a company founded by an immigrant catering to immigrants, it can speak to its core customer base with a sense of empathy.

S11: What Goya would say is that we are not a white company trying to mimic your ethnic recipes in the taste that feel like home. We are you. We understand you and and this is a brand that you can trust.

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S1: Goya works hard to maintain that emotional connection, even as it’s expanded to reach a more diverse set of customers with hundreds of products now tailored to fit the nuances of many different national cuisines.

S11: And they know a lot about the micro demographics, honestly, of the places where they’re stocking their products.

S1: Goya sells in tiny bodegas, small supermarkets all the way up to mega suburban grocery stores. But it knows which customers shop where so it can stock ingredients that appeal to Peruvian Americans in one spot and Salvadoran Americans in another and Dominican Americans and a third.

S11: So it’s that kind of granular understanding that I think has really helped them grow. And I think also what has helped them gain traction among white yuppies, because white yuppies go in these stores and say, like, oh, they’re microtargeting to this population. This seems to be the product that people who know what they’re doing actually buy.

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S1: There’s that two track strategy still in evidence, micro target, the core customer who feel seen and by doing that, maybe attract some non Spanish speaking foodies who are searching for what they perceive to be authentic ingredients. But being able to stock each individual store with a unique, carefully chosen mix of product requires a business model that’s rare in the food industry. Lots of food companies outsource things like warehousing and distribution. It’s specialization. They just make the food. They let someone else drive it to the stores. But GooYa is vertically integrated. It manufactures warehouses and distributes all its own products. Here’s Babu Janaway describing the process on CNBC earlier this year.

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S4: We do DSD direct store delivery, where we’re ordering today, loading tonight and delivering tomorrow. Door to door.

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S1: The advantage to the direct store delivery approach is that GooYa keeps a lot of control. This is how it exploits its deep knowledge of the gustatory preferences of dozens of different communities. GooYa employees place products directly on shelves in individual stores. Where they learn from the owner is what’s selling and what isn’t. But there are drawbacks to outsourcing. All this stuff would be a lot cheaper and in some ways more efficient. There are people inside and outside the company who think GooYa is crazy to keep everything in-house. And here, strangely, is where Babou not always Rose Garden comments about President Trump. Enter the picture because those comments are all tied up with the feet of GooYa, its business model, and you can’t always fight over control of their own company.

S12: There’s a power battle within the family.

S13: More on that when we come back.

S1: In the past year, there have been two separate attempts to buy Goya Foods away from Bob Woonona and his family. Josh Kosman is the merger’s reporter for The New York Post. He reported on both buyout efforts and he thinks they both boil down to one thing Wall Street would say you don’t run a company like the way Bob is.

S12: Run.

S1: Goyo, I’m Bob. Winona’s watch. GooYa has done OK, but there are Wall Street types who think it could grow much faster. They’d like to buy the company and maybe take it public. They tell small time Bob and his family to hit the road and then, like Wall Street types usually do, they bring in some new bean counters, if you will, who could cut costs, probably lay off workers, goose the profits and expand internationally. The first bid to buy Goya came last fall from the Carlyle Group.

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S12: Carlyle is one of the biggest private equity firms in the world, and Carlyle was looking to buy about 70 percent of GooYa. That would have meant Bob loses his job. They did not want Bob running the company.

S1: A buyout would make the union away’s even richer than they are now. But after waffling for a while, GooYa killed the sale, according to Joshua sources, because a faction of the family and in particular Bob, wasn’t ready to give up day to day control. A second buyout effort came just this summer from an investment bank called Capital Partners. Again, a buyout would have removed Bob Wunan away from his role as CEO of GooYa. The many members of the extended Woonona family took a vote, and they tentatively approved a sale that would bring them a huge windfall.

S12: Then Bob, who was already invited to the White House, surprises everybody and makes his public announcement in the Rose Garden. You know, we are so lucky to have President Trump, people who I have spoken to who have direct knowledge of the situation think Bob is not an idiot. Bob knew when he said that it was going to cause a kerfuffle.

S14: So he was doing it essentially to shake things up, possibly to save his job. And it kind of worked.

S15: It worked, according to Joshes sources, because it put the future of GooYa in doubt with one seemingly off the cuff remark, Woonona, we made the brand toxic to some of its most loyal customers. And sure enough, the deal fell through. Does a controversy like this make it easier or harder to sell the company?

S12: Harder for sure, because now you can’t predict what will happen, do you necessarily, as a buyer, want to be associated with a brand that is hated? You might not want to be associated with a brand like that. I would imagine five years from today, however, Goya does. We’re going to remember this moment that Bob praised the president and Goya, to a degree will be, you know, identified with that.

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S15: So in this scenario, Bob, Nanoha is willing to put in peril the future earnings of Goya in order to keep his job.

S14: Yeah, it’s certainly that the suspicion again, hard to know for sure, but that’s the speculation is not from outsiders, it’s from insiders.

S1: What Josh’s sources are theorizing is that Bob is attempting a very delicate bank shot. He’s betting that he can damage his reputation just enough to kill the sale and save his job and keep the company in family control, but not damage GooYa so much that the brand is permanently ruined. It’s a wild combination of boardroom politics, family dysfunction and culture war.

S8: Babou not always already rich, so he doesn’t need the money from a sale. Maybe he’s got too much pride to let the company his grandfather founded fall out of the family’s hands. Maybe he’s got too much ego to give up his own spot at the top of the org chart. Or maybe he just wanted to prove it’s his company and he can say whatever he wants. It seems like his feelings for President Trump are, at least in part, genuine. Bob went on Fox not long ago to talk about how pleased he is with the president’s pro-business agenda.

S16: You know, the president has taken away a lot of the regulations and roadblocks to prosperity. You know, the function of the government.

S8: Some of Bob’s motivation might even be selfless. GooYa supports a lot of Latino charities and has been a solid corporate citizen in lots of ways.

S17: Letting go to go to a private equity firm or investment bank might mean less priority on doing those sorts of good deeds. It might also mean lots of layoffs as new investors streamline the operation by all reports Bob Sequoia’s employees as part of a big family. The thing is, he might have put that family in jeopardy. His White House comments earns GooYa an endorsement from President Trump and a couple of Trump children. But it remains to be seen whether the brand will win long term business from core Trump supporters. Are those folks buying a lot of Sezen and Adobo? Meanwhile, some of Goya’s most reliable customers immediately launched a boycott of the company’s products.

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S18: It was like always kind of like background music, you know, you just know that that’s where you get your ingredients that you need. There wasn’t any political stance that they had. They didn’t have any sort of point of view. It was just, hey, this is this is your food. This is your cuisine. This is you know, we can help you get those flavors. And that’s kind of how it always was.

S1: Eric Rivera’s parents came from Puerto Rico and settled in Washington State where Eric was born when he was growing up in the 1980s. The only way Eric’s family could cook Puerto Rican food was by finding the one supermarket that sold Goya products being all the way out here in Seattle away from Puerto Rico.

S19: That was pretty much the only product available. So every product you can think of, from olives to rice to packets of SASO and tomato to you name it, the entire product line as much as we can get. I grew up eating that since day one, even before I even knew what it was. Beans, of course, but beans are beans, pretty much the entire spectrum of beans, their olive oil, they’re distilled vinegar. I mean, like everything that we can find, honestly.

S1: Eric eventually became a chef. In 2017, he opened a restaurant in Seattle called Addo. That’s where he spoke to us from Seattle magazine called Atto. Seattle’s most buzzed about dining experience. Eric was a rising culinary star until the covid pandemic shut down his dining room. He found himself scrambling to save the business and then he heard about baboons. Conaway’s kind words for President Trump.

S19: It was very strange, something that you’ve grown up with your entire life and it felt like, you know, going out of your fucking traitor, you know, like that’s what it felt like immediately. Like, what the fuck is wrong with you guys? It’s like a punch in the face when you talk to other people. What kind of things do they say, you know, fuck? Yeah, that’s that’s essentially what comes out first. And that’s like with my parents and other Latino people that I know or communicate with or see talking about it. It’s pretty much a unified message. I have people sending me photos and videos of them throwing gorgeous stone in the trashcan, lighting them on fire, you know, going to a grocery store and just putting a middle finger to them. Just I mean, you name it, it may or may not hurt their bottom line, meaning GooYa. But I know there’s a lot of people that are going to be permanently affected that never want to buy their product again.

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S1: People who are swearing off GooYa, joining the boycott began to look around for other places they could buy their cooking ingredients from. And Eric saw an opening. He turned his dormant kitchen into a factory and his empty dining room into a warehouse. He started by making a spice plant, says on one of Goya’s big selling products. How did you come up with your Sezen blend? Is it is it something that’s tailored to your taste, the system that you can buy from Goya?

S20: I didn’t. I liked it, but I didn’t like it enough. And there’s always something that was missing from it. I think they have like eight or nine flavors of it, things that they put in like saffron. They have a spicy one. They have like one with an auto, they have one with pepper, all these kind of different variables. But I kind of wanted something in the middle. But to also trace back history of how the ingredients got there, meaning like the spices. So having annatto in it for me was important and having that kind of be more at the forefront of the flavor of my own. I also wanted it to have that coloring in it. So you feel it and touch it and smell it. But you can be like I just cooked Puerto Rican cuisine and you can have that like orangish kind of hand, which is cool because there’s a lot of cuisine to me that’s very clean and, you know, proper. And I wanted this one to kind of like leave a mark and a bunch of different ways.

S1: People started buying it right away and demanding more Goyo replacement’s.

S19: I just immediately had people asking if we had ABCDE, EFG ingredients and whatever, and in the span of about ten hours we went from a Cesan to twenty three different products. How did you put out the word how are people hearing about you? A lot of press has been generated from this. I’m very vocal.

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S1: You also ran online ads targeting potential customers.

S19: I mean, there’s even like some that have discount codes that say like fuck Trump on them and fuck GooYa that give people like five percent off. And, you know, it’s just hammer in that home. You know, I don’t have thousands of employees or anything like that or millions of billions of dollars, like five dollars. But we’ll try to make it work.

S15: Do you think you can eat into Goya’s sales in a way that might actually hurt them?

S19: But no, I would need to scale this business up massively in order to really put a dent in what they do, ideally that would be cool, you know, David and Goliath moment, but it took them a long time to scale.

S17: He’s right. It’s taken 84 years for GooYa to get where it is today. Its founder, Prudencio Nottoway, was an entrepreneur who spotted an opportunity and started small, not unlike Eric Rivera, now is headed by his grandson, not away, a man born into a wealthy family in New Jersey, an heir to a business worth four or five billion dollars. It would be hard for Bob Wunan away to argue that he’s in touch with the immigrant experience the same way that his grandfather was. It’s even harder now that he’s praised President Trump. What remains to be seen is whether his customers will take their business elsewhere forever in a way that hurts his bottom line. Eric Rivera hopes they will. Whether or not he’s the beneficiary.

S20: Maybe if it’s not me that ends up being the next Goya, but if there’s another brand out there that’s small, that ends up being that, I think that’s great.

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S17: Are there other kinds of products you you’re hoping to branch into if everything goes well?

S20: There’s a ton. That’s always what keeps me awake at night.

S17: It might be some time before we know how all this shakes out, since GooYa is privately held. We can’t track its stock price or read its earnings reports to see how it’s affected. Boycotts have a mixed track record when it comes to getting results. Consumers have short memories and often fall back into old habits. There are also lots of Latino people who support President Trump. They might be glad Bob Wunan away said what he did. What we do know is that Bobby Dunaway’s remarks in the Rose Garden created a strange brew of politics, business and family. Politics and business can be weird, but families are weird on a whole nother level. Goya watchers may be about to find out if blood is thicker than beans.

S1: That’s our show for this week. This episode was produced by Jesse Miller with help from Madeline Ducharme, Hannah Klein, Megan Karlstrom and Atias Lujah Technical Direction from Merritt. Jacob Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. If you’d like to support our show, consider signing up for Slate. Plus, it’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and it helps us bring you all the great podcasts you get from Slate. Sign up now at Slate Dotcom thrilling.

S17: Plus, next week on the show, we revisit the story of an epic company that’s back in the news.

S6: Oh my gosh. For 1994. And it must always have fought and fought and fought for it and more fought night for night for night.

S17: That’s next week on Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.