Latinos Targeted for Mexican Import Venture

Times Staff Writer

Several hundred food and household products manufactured in Mexico are likely to become increasingly commonplace on local supermarket shelves as the result of a major import venture formally announced last week during the International Food and Merchandise Expo at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The effort to popularize everything from Mexican cookies to mineral water is being undertaken by Central de Abastos Internacional of Vernon. The company was formed in a partnership between Vons Grocery Co. and Aurrera, S.A., a firm which operates one of Mexico's largest supermarket chains.

The joint venture is the direct result of Vons' plan to operate several new stores in Southern California's Latino neighborhoods. These yet-unopened outlets will operate under the name Tianguis, an Aztec Indian word meaning marketplace, according to Roger Stangeland, Vons' chairman and chief executive officer.

The first Tianguis store will debut by early December, emphasizing products and services specifically designed to appeal to Latinos, whose increasing numbers and purchasing power have captured the attention of manufacturers and retailers alike. In order to provide the new stores with a distinctive character apart from the typical Vons market, company officials sought reliable sources for Mexican-manufactured items and thus teamed up with Aurrera.

Initially, Central de Abastos will distribute 500 of the most popular Mexican consumer items throughout the Western United States and eventually hopes to be the exclusive source for as many as 250. There are now half a dozen California importers of Mexican products, but supplies are often unpredictable, according to several Vons officials involved with the latest effort.

In addition to the problems with deliveries, Stangeland said that many of the Mexican food and household items now sold in this country do not meet U.S. health or environmental standards. Those products to be imported by Central de Abastos will comply with federal regulations.

"The products we handle will be up to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's and the Environmental Protection Agency's specifications," he said. "No one else is doing that now--many of the distributors are (importing) some goods that would meet these standards while bringing in other items that do not."

The new company's representatives believe that a more consistent availability of such popular Mexican items such as Herdez Salsa, Ariel detergent, Gamesa cookies and Jumex nectars will also make the products fixtures in supermarkets that serve non-Latino communities. In fact, Stangeland said that he anticipates having at least 150 of these Mexican products in most Vons supermarkets shortly, a presence substantially higher than the 50 or so such items currently found in the average supermarket.

There are high hopes that a few of the 500 "made in Mexico" items will become mainstream best-sellers, much as imports of once-obscure Corona beer have gone from virtually nothing to several million cases annually in only a few years.

However, one obstacle that may cause problems for Central de Abastos is Vons' competitors. Companies such as Ralphs Grocery Co., Safeway Stores, Alpha Beta Co. and others are not likely to rush and place orders with a virtual subsidiary of their competition. At least initially, that will mean the company will be dealing primarily with independent grocers and the 178 Vons supermarkets.

Washington Perspective--Attending the announcement of Vons' joint import effort was Luis Acle Jr., a public liaison official specializing in Latino affairs for the Reagan White House.

Acle said that the increasing availability of Mexican products in this country has a broader significance beyond just the presence of a certain salsa. That these items have made their way out of an ethnic food section and are now integrated among the general merchandise signals that this cuisine has become "part of the American stock."

"This event highlights the increasing attention being focused by U.S. companies on the Mexican-American community and its annual spending power of $80 billion. And there is now a realization of a related market--those non-Hispanics who have a taste for typically Hispanic products. A situation such as this has commercial possibilities well beyond the Mexican-American community," he said.

Acle disagreed when asked if Vons, and other American firms, might be usurping Mexico-based companies' ability to export to the lucrative U.S. market and thus indirectly impacting a struggling Mexican economy.

"In reality, many of the Mexican food companies involved with this current project do not have the knowledge of the U.S. market to be able to compete effectively," he said. "It's also a two-way street. . . . With the U.S. dollars (the Mexicans) receive (as a result of these sales) then they will be able to buy American goods in their country."

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