Not long ago, if you asked non-Latinos what they thought of cheeses such as Queso Fresco, Panela and Cotija, likely responses would have ranged from blank stares to words like "icky" or "deadly."
Even those who had never tasted the stuff remember the largest food poisoning outbreak in California history. By the time the panic over Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. subsided 13 years ago, 40 people were dead--most of them babies, and the fledgling Hispanic cheese industry was barely surviving.
Not so today. Thanks to heightened safety, an explosion in Latino demographics and a growing mainstream taste for Latin foods, the industry is as hot as cubed Panela in tortilla soup.
California's producers of Hispanic cheese tripled their output over the past decade, and are growing nearly twice as fast as the booming state cheese industry.
Their products are crossing over to chichi menus.
And as a sign of their coming of age, about half of the state's dozen producers have formed the Hispanic Cheese Assn. to combat residual doubts about safety and tap the cheese fad sweeping the nation.
"We want to catch the California cheese wave," said Jonathan Stevens, an attorney for Los Altos Foods Inc. in Industry, which has joined the fledgling association. "It's not just, 'It's the Cheddar Cheese' or 'It's the Jack Cheese,' " he said of the industry's ubiquitous "It's the Cheese" marketing campaign. "It's also, 'It's the Hispanic Cheese.' "
The bulk of Hispanic cheeses are fresh and higher in moisture than most American cheeses. Some--such as the mild Queso Fresco and Panela--resist melting and are ideal for soups or searing. However, like milk, the cheese is more susceptible to harmful bacteria.
Most cheeses originated in Mexico, but some, like Duro Blando and Queso de Freir, are from Central America.
The industry's revival from near collapse offers a glimpse at the thriving Latino small-business economy. Started as tiny family-run operations that peddled handmade products in immigrant neighborhoods, the cheese business has grown dramatically with the surge in the Latino population. Now, the success of some cheese makers is outpacing even that growth as Latin culture--particularly food--goes mainstream.
Image problems still haunt the companies, which compete with a shadow industry that illegally produces as much cheese as they do--often making it in bathtubs and selling it door to door.
But growth nevertheless has been staggering, sending small producers scrambling for space.
At Los Altos Foods, the aging room for Cotija--a crumbling cheese with a strong flavor--is stacked so high that owner Raul Andrade jokingly calls it "New York, New York." A trim man who developed several products to satisfy his wife's longings for her native cheese, Andrade is searching for a second plant to handle yearly sales growth of 20%.
The Andrades are negotiating their second deal to produce private label cheese for a major California grocery chain. Meanwhile, other family-run operations are breaking into markets as far away as Texas, Miami and New York--part of a burgeoning national market.
Company Targets High-End Tastes
At the head of the pack sits Industry-based Cacique Inc., comfortably the king of queso. Started in 1973 behind a tiny drive-through dairy, the company's Cuban-born owners watched sales plummet 90% after the Jalisco crisis, but last year rose to $90 million.
In 1993, Cacique became the first Latino-owned company to sponsor a Rose Parade float. It vigilantly guards trade secrets with a high-security plant and formidable legal team known for taking competitors to court.
Cacique also was the first to tackle the mainstream market--its latest source of growth. The company fields calls from non-Latinos across the country clamoring for cooking tips, said President Gilbert de Cardenas Jr. The company's newest employee: an executive chef who dreams up recipes suited to high-end taste buds.
"We're finding that the opinion leaders, the more they know about Hispanic cheeses, the more they like them," said Nancy Fletcher, spokeswoman for the California Milk Advisory Board, which runs the $18-million-a-year "It's the Cheese" campaign and in April began promoting Hispanic cheese to the restaurant industry.
The burst of savvy marketing is an added bonus for an industry that ballooned as immigrants sought the cheeses of home. Manufacturers in Latin America rarely export cheese to the United States because quotas are strict and products often fail to meet federal standards.
So, producers here sprang up to fill the void. Like many first-generation Latino business owners, they pooled family resources, often holding down second jobs and peddling products by word of mouth.
The first producer was Juan Mota, who founded Artesia-based Jalisco in the late 1960s with a few thousand dollars.
Ausencio Ariza, recently arrived from Pueblo, Mexico, watched as Mota's company grew. Jalisco was the only player in the state and it didn't make Cotija cheese. In 1970, Ariza used his $450 tax refund to form Ariza Cheese Co. Inc., in Paramount, keeping his swing-shift job as a Jerseymaid pasteurizer.
A year later, the de Cardenas family emigrated from Tarara, outside Havana, where Gilbert's grandfather taught his father cheese making. One day, Gilbert's father--Cacique's chairman--walked into an Alhambra market that was giving away samples of Hispanic cheese.
"What do you think of this cheese?" he asked the butcher, who was Latino. The man shrugged. "It's not very good, but it's all we have. It's selling well."
De Cardenas didn't like the taste either, but he smelled market potential. The family bought a small plant, de Cardenas making cheese at night, his wife by day.
Today, Cacique is known for efficient mass production and its computerized plant is hailed by the Milk Advisory Board as "one of the most modern cheese manufacturing facilities in the world."
Hispanic cheeses have broken into major grocery chains and remain a staple in mom-and-pop stores in Latino immigrant neighborhoods. But in the beginning, even they were skeptical.
When Andrade first entered the Southern California industry in 1980, market owners favored illegally imported Cotija, convinced that no local product could mimic its authenticity. Andrade masqueraded as an importer, selling unlabeled cheese to grocers to get them interested. When they asked for more, he disclosed the true source.
The following year, Gustavo, Juan and Jaime Marquez became the first to enter the Northern California market, launching San Jose-based Marquez Brothers International while working second jobs. Today, the company sells cheese in 20 states and is second in sales to Cacique.
Then, in 1985, it all came undone. Patients suffering from listeriosis, a flu-like illness caused by a strain of bacteria, flowed into hospitals. All had eaten cheese from Jalisco.
The incident seared Hispanic cheese into consumer consciousness. Regulators descended on cheese plants. Sales plummeted.
For 50 years, listeria had been studied as a source of animal health problems, but it did not earn its reputation as a food-borne pathogen until Jalisco. Health officials' ignorance, combined with risky practices, contributed to the outbreak, state officials said.
Taking the heat was Gary S. McPherson, a former accountant who bought the company in 1981 with a group of investors. He maintained that the listeria came from milk purchased by Jalisco, but after years of litigation, a jury cleared the dairy. McPherson and Jalisco's chief cheese maker were convicted on misdemeanor charges. Staggering under the weight of lawsuits, the company never reopened.
For six months after the outbreak, state inspectors were stationed at every Hispanic cheese plant. Then they instituted a zero-tolerance listeria policy and began monthly tests.
While manufacturers chafed under the scrutiny, it guaranteed unprecedented levels of safety. The industry, meanwhile, like the broader Latin foods and entertainment industries, was buoyed by the sheer force of demographics.
Today, the Jalisco name is still muttered in industry circles with horror. But within two years of the problems, Cacique's sales had climbed to pre-Jalisco levels. Then, they soared.
Last year, Hispanic cheese production in California reached 46 million pounds--two-thirds of the nation's supply and more than three times the 13 million pounds produced in 1987, when the state first tracked the category. The industry accounts for about 5% of total California cheese production.
Big mainstream players have tried to join in, so far unsuccessfully. In 1993, Stella Foods Inc. launched Estrella Cheese Co. in Tulare with help from several former Cacique employees. Cacique sued for trade-secret infringement, Stella unplugged its operation, and five years later the case is still in court.
In 1996, Kraft Foods introduced a line of Hispanic cheeses to a Houston test market. Kraft spokeswoman Moyra Knight said the products are on hold as the company evaluates "whether we would want to make products that are considered authentic ethnic products."
Kraft woos the Latino dollar with nonauthentic products, including a Taco Bell grocery line and Mexican Shreds, processed cheese with jalapeno and other flavorings.
"The [national] Hispanic population is projected to grow about 31% in the next 10 years," she said. "Obviously, with that amount of growth, that is a very important market to us."
Now hispanic cheeses are capturing the attention of the gourmet set.
"People are experimenting more with their cheeses," said Donna Gorski, senior editor of Dairy Foods Magazine. "Not only are Hispanic cheeses growing, but feta cheese is growing, hard Italian cheeses [such as] Romano and Asiago, those are just booming. The whole [specialty cheese] segment is growing."
Campaign Hits Mainstream Market
Executive chef Claud Beltran, previously with Pasadena's tony Dickenson West, spends his time in Cacique's gleaming test kitchen, playing with such recipes as mango-Queso Fresco-blueberry tort, and seared Panela with sea scallops.
His mission: to introduce the cheeses to the swank food service industry. He recently won a convert when a chef from Napa's posh Meadowwood resort ordered 40 pounds of Queso Fresco, and Cacique donated a shipment to the Napa Valley Wine Auction. Already on board were Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, chef-owners of Santa Monica's Border Grill and hosts of cable TV's "Too Hot Tamales."
"We talk about [Hispanic cheese] constantly," Milliken said. "Our cookbooks feature it prominently."
The Milk Advisory Board's campaign to promote "Real California Cheese" has joined the chorus, sponsoring a Hispanic cheese course at Napa's gourmet Culinary Institute of America. The cheeses are sampled from the campaign's Cheesemobile, and grace high-gloss magazine ads. "I was looking for Oaxaca on the map. Then realized I'd been eating it for days," reads one for the mild firm cheese sold in a braided or rolled ball.
The mainstream market's crush on Hispanic cheese is consistent with the boom in Latin foods across the country. Salsa outsells catsup, the Taco Bell Chihuahua has become an American mascot, and a 1997 study by the Tortilla Industry Assn. showed non-Latinos outpacing Latinos in purchases.
"Mexican food has literally become mainstream," said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Council. "People are finding that it's not just all tacos and beans. It's an obvious growth business."
Still, image problems persist.
A state campaign launched in February against illegally produced Hispanic cheese is keeping the fear of food poisoning alive as it seeks to protect consumers. And some manufacturers say their plants are scrutinized more than producers of non-Latino fresh cheeses such as ricotta.
"For years we have been treated like a stepchild . . . by everybody, the larger industry and the regulatory agencies as well," said Juan de la Fuente, a former state Department of Food and Agriculture employee heading the Hispanic Cheese Assn.
"We're not looking to point fingers. What we're trying to do is make our products better, safer, improve quality controls and establish standards that in fact exceed those standards established by the state."
Azteca Cheese in Gardena could use the help. The company has had five product recalls since 1992 because of listeria, documents show, and a plant spokesman recently said the owners are selling the company.
Since 1985, state regulators have ordered 42 cheese recalls, 15 for Hispanic cheese. While the number may seem alarming, state health officials stress that under the zero-tolerance policy, even a harmless hint of listeria can provoke a recall. None of the recalls have been linked to illness, said Lee Jensen, of the state Department of Food and Agriculture's Milk and Dairy Control Branch.
Now, Hispanic cheese is rarely made by hand, and post-Jalisco legislation required a battery of new tests.
Whether the often-fractious industry will unite as it grows remains to be seen.
De Cardenas Jr. said Cacique sees no reason to join the new producers' association, preferring to work with the cheese industry as a whole. Joining would bring the company to the table with Marquez Bros., whom Cacique sued in 1995. The suit alleged that former Cacique employees divulged trade secrets to Marquez Bros., which then produced a Queso Fresco remarkably similar in size and shape to Cacique's.
After a year of litigation, Cacique voluntarily dismissed the complaint, but then sued the company that sold Marquez Bros. a machine that may have formed the suspect cheeses. That case is pending.
De Cardenas Jr. said Cacique "welcomes competition because it makes us better. But when we feel it's unfair, it's a whole different story."
Proponents of the association insist that it is essential to an industry with "special problems." The group could assist the state campaign against illegally produced cheese--a Spanish-language media blitz featuring actor Edward James Olmos launched in February, largely without industry help.
Andrade said he also is keen to establishing broader legal standards for Hispanic cheese. Federal specifications are precise for cheeses such as cheddar, but virtually nonexistent for Hispanic cheeses.
Most of all, he said, an association could provide the final push to bring Hispanic cheese into the mainstream.
"Taco Bell, they make burritos and put cheddar cheese on top," he said. "We should promote an education on such things.
"Imagine if you had a pizza with cheddar on it. It wouldn't be a pizza!"