NJ's Hispanic Business: Like Great Bourbon in a Barrel?

Hispanic business is open for business in New Jersey. That was the message at the 25th Annual Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce convention and awards luncheon, a gathering of the latest and greatest of the state’s Hispanic business owners and those who work with them.

Frank Inc.I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect as I strolled into the Brownstone in Paterson, a charming old box made famous by the Manzo family of the popular sci-fi/fantasy TV series Real Housewives of New Jersey.

For most Anglos, the misconception of “Hispanic business” starts at the corner bodega hawking pupusas and arepitas, and ends at the local Pentecostal storefront church.

But I’m not like most Anglos; I come from a mixed family, half Hispanic and half not - not entirely comfortable commenting on or representing either mindset, but at least moderately accustomed to both. So I’m already well aware that the Latino dólar is far more macho than most realize.

It was a point Idida Rodriguez, Secretary of SHCC’s Board of Directors, was careful to emphasize in her opening remarks at the event’s elaborate luncheon, which, sadly, did not consist of perníl and arroz con gandules. “There are 70,000 Hispanic owned businesses in New Jersey,” she proclaimed with pride, “which contribute a combined $10 billion to our state’s economy.” Pone eso en tu pipa y lo fuma!

No more Spanish jokes. Promise.

The event was, in that quintessentially Hispanic way, a combination of exquisite class and delightful oddity. There were buxom Latin babes who looked straight out of an audition for Maria la del Barrio hawking Goya coffee across the room from a stall urging Americans of Latino descent to donate bone marrow. (Check out their website and consider donating - it’s a good cause, folks).

There was a presentation on Latina achievement by Mariela Dabbah, CEO of Red Shoe Movement. That was buttressed by a plug for the “Empanada Fork,” a utensil for sealing empanadas (a delicious stuffed pastry that’s halfway between Pierogi and Spanakopita). 

SHCC 2015

Award winners and presenters line up for a photo at the 2015 Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce convention and awards luncheon in Paterson.

One of the afternoon’s honorees was Yvonne Lopez, CEO of the Puerto Rican Association for Human Development. Before taking the stage to collect her Non-Profit Advocate of the Year award, I asked her why nonprofits like PRAHD and SHCC - organizations that ostensibly exist to lift up a part of society that’s lagging behind - are still necessary in a country where Hispanic-owned businesses in just one state generate more money than the entire economy of the Bahamas.

“My message to the audience today is to ask small businesses and corporate America to engage with the nonprofits in their communities,” she told me. “Chances are that their staff and their clients come to our organizations for support and services… long-term job-training programs, resumé and presentation skills, job interviews and college tours. Without the support of corporate America, and small business, well... we can’t run our business, either.” 

One standard-bearer for corporate America who couldn’t be happier to reach out to New Jersey’s Hispanic business community was Jonathan Pearson, executive director of the Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, established by Horizon Blue Cross & Blue Shield, the state’s largest insurance provider.

“We’re here to provide education and guidance,” he told me. “Our job is really to engage with consumers, targeted in Hispanic communities… We want to be represented in the community, bridging the language gap, building trust to communicate more easily and breaking down the products. The Chamber is great at helping correct us, helping us know where to go. We want to be culturally sensitive, and I think we’re getting better at it as a company.”

No matter how many jobs, how much tax revenue, how much renewal Hispanic business generates, the message I got from many I talked with is that Latin-American businesses can’t shake the perception of stagnation tacked onto them by the Anglo-American business community. But why? Why is this stereotype clinging so stubbornly?

One person who had a few valuable insights to offer is John Sanchez, president of the Essex County Latino-American Chamber of Commerce. A pest control expert by trade, he’s experienced firsthand the unspoken (and sometimes not so unspoken) prejudice that keeps these attitudes from evolving.

“We still are suffering from banks not loaning to minority businesses - or minorities, period. If you were an Anglo walking into a bank, you stand a real good chance of getting a loan - the same loan I wouldn’t get. That’s discrimination, and sadly it’s still happening. You see a businessman with an idea, but because he’s a Latino, they don’t think he’s capable - so, less money, and more interest.

“There are people who are jealous, who are scared to give us opportunity, who are scared of breaking the ‘old boys’ club,” he continued. “I encounter that every day in my business; I still deal with that. When I came into the picture, they wanted to throw the book at me - ordering me to comply with this and that. With an Anglo-owned company, they never did that. But once we’re there, they accept us."

Sanchez told me about a contract he has with the federal government , from his office at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County. “I’m the first Latino to ever have a professional office on Fort Dix - this was 10 years ago. Now, they won’t use anyone else! Once we’re there, once we prove ourselves, and people see that these guys are really good at what they do, they accept us.”

Another unique entrepreneur who says he has experienced the “good ol’ boys’ club” is Jesús Ricardo “Rick” Tapía. A native of Peru, Rick carries the distinction of being the only Hispanic-American owner of a bourbon bottler in the United States. 

Tapia isn’t from New Jersey, he admits; he’s based in Atlanta, and his bourbon, J.R. Revelry, is bottled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. But he’s secured his first distribution deal north of the Mason-Dixon in New Jersey, and he had ventured up north to show off his liquid gold before a thirsty crowd perhaps more used to pisco and tequila than whisky.

“A lot of the entrepreneurs in this industry are Caucasian, for a lot of reasons - access to capital and experience,” Tapia said. “Getting moved to the south and learning to appreciate bourbon was kind of the final training after 18 years on the corporate side. There’s nothing more American than bourbon, which can by law only be made in the United States. I asked, ‘Why can’t a Latino who is an American citizen, who loves his country, do the most American thing you can do - make a bourbon?’”

Tapia pointed out with pride that the bourbon is American from start to finish. “All of the packaging - the bottle, the strip stamp, the wood-stained top - is made in the USA." (Cue the patriotic music.) 

"My parents worked in factories; my first job out of college was working in a factory. I saw first-hand the jobs that were created by orders coming in… there were times we were working seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, making good money staying busy,” he said. “But I also saw the flipside when the orders weren’t there, there were people who became unemployed.” 

Tapia’s operation produces about 24 barrels of whisky (just under 4,000 bottles) per batch - a tiny fraction of what distillers like Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s turn out every day.

But his passion is infectious, and it captures the spirit of what these business owners are accomplishing every day in New Jersey. As I sipped on a glass of Tapia’s bourbon and heard more about the Empanada Fork, I felt optimistic about what this all means for Newark, a city where 30% of the population is Hispanic or Latino - the 74th-highest such ratio in the nation, ahead of cities like San Jose and Las Vegas. I realized that, at least for now, the state of the Hispanic business community in our city and our state is a lot like the taste of Rick’s bourbon - moving forward a trickle at a time, still a bit feisty and eye-watering, but benefiting from the kind of wisdom that only comes from dedicating some time in a barrel.

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