DURHAM — Iris Ramírez Reese made a promise to right a wrong after she asked a Food Lion employee where she could find traditional Puerto Rican seasoning and sodas.
“They directed me to the Taco Bell box, and they were calling it the Spanish food section,” said Ramírez Reese, who owns Fusión Multicultural Marketing & Communications, a Durham firm that focuses on marketing to the Hispanic community. “So I made a conscious decision that I need to help this company to bring my food here, my products here.”
That was 1998, a year after Ramírez Reese and her husband moved to Durham from New York, where she was raised by her parents and grandparents. She was the first in her Puerto Rican family born on the U.S. mainland.
In 1999, Ramírez Reese, who at the time owned La Conexión Latina, an interpretation and translation services company, shared her concerns with local Food Lion officials, who then contracted with her to help bring in authentic products, create internal procedures and take other steps to attract and retain the local Hispanic market.
“We did 16 cities in 16 weeks,” Ramírez Reese said. “Then they contracted me again to come in and help them train their associates.”
She then went to Food Lions from Kill Devil Hills up the East Coast to help stores match their demographics with its food.
Ramírez Reese’s company and efforts highlight two important markets – Latino consumers and Hispanic-owned businesses – that Triangle communities and small-business owners need to pay attention to, she and other experts said.
Latino consumers are part of the fastest growing ethnic segment, according to a 2012 report on Hispanic consumers from Nielsen, which provides information and insight on consumer activity. According to the report, the Hispanic segment is expected to increase 167 percent from 2010 to 2050, compared to 42 percent for the total population.
“The Hispanic market’s size, growing clout, and buying power of $1 trillion in 2010 and $1.5 trillion by 2015 require thoughtful understanding about what the market represents to a company’s bottom line,” the report states.
The number of Hispanic-owned businesses is also rapidly increasing, providing jobs and driving economies in communities across the nation.
From 2002 to 2007, the number of Hispanic-owned business grew from 1.57 million to more than 2.26 million with more than $350 billion in revenue, according to a report from Geoscape, which provides multicultural intelligence to companies, and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The number of U.S. Hispanic-owned businesses is projected to grow to more than 3.16 million this year, the report states.
Doing their homework
To understand the purchasing habits of the Latino demographic, owners need to do research, attend related conferences and connect with consulting companies, said Casey Steinbacher, president and CEO of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce.
“There are consumer spending habits by the Hispanic community in every aspect of daily consumption,” Steinbacher said. “You just have to know and understand the cultural differences, and the product differences, and the buying-purchasing difference that they bring to the marketplace so that you take the best advantage of that.”
Ramírez Reese advises owners to seek training to understand the norms and nuances of the Latino culture and avoid misconceptions. Owners should ensure their materials are professionally produced and culturally and linguistically inclusive, she said.
Owners should also set up an internal structure, such as a bilingual salesperson, to respond to demand.
“You have one time to capture or lose that market,” she said.
Hispanic small-business owners need to capitalize on the mainstream marketplace to expand their revenue.
The N.C. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which has about 200 small-business members, encourages Hispanic owners to learn Spanish, understand best practices and integrate into other organizations and chambers, president Leonor Clavijo said.
Roberto Cardoso, 48, opened Havana Grill in Cary in June 2007. Cardoso was born in Cuba, but moved to Miami with his parents when he was 10. After nearly 30 years of owning or working for restaurants in Miami, Cardoso moved his family to North Carolina in 2005.
He’s built a healthy business over the years, he said, by treating his employees well, providing good products and service and making everyone feel welcome.
“We keep our culture. We keep our stuff, but everything is pretty much in English, or my menu is in Spanish and English,” Cardoso said. “I am not saying you have to change your roots or change your tradition, but you need to adjust and everybody has got to feel welcome.”
Filling a niche
Ramírez Reese and her husband, David Reese, moved to Durham in 1997, when she started interpreting for two health care facilities.
In 1999, she founded La Conexión Latina, a company that provided interpretation, translation and graphic design services. She also sought to fill a need to better inform American companies that were trying to appeal to the Hispanic market.
She established a strategic partnership with a marketing firm that targeted the African-American consumer. She alsogot counseling from the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development, which connected her to small-business resources and helped her get federal certifications as a minority and women-owned firm.
During her business’s first year, Ramirez Reese started consulting for Food Lion after reaching out about the store’s product selection.
In 2000, Ramírez Reese ventured out on her own and opened Fusión Multicultural Marketing & Communications, a Durham firm that works with about 20 companies in a dozen states.
And she is proud when she walks into Food Lion and finds an expanded Latino section.
“I love being able to walk into the store and know that I am going to find cilantro, I am going to find all those things that were staples in my household for many generations,” she said.