West Side Story: Goya Turns 75

Photographs: Courtesy of Goya
Photograph Courtesy of Goya

At lunch the other week with a friend who’s not from around here, I mentioned Goya and she asked: “The painter?” As a Californian, she could be forgiven. Anyone who cooks here would not even ask: “The beans?”

Goya products are almost as New York–emblematic as the bagel. Virtually every longtime Manhattan supermarket has an entire section devoted to them; they’re not sprinkled throughout the store like so many ConAgra conveniences. But, unlike that round, boiled breakfast bread, this icon was actually born in Manhattan—Goya was founded in TriBeCa. And while bagels assimilated (what would those first Polish bakers have thought of adding blueberries or wasabi?), Goya has stuck to its roots. Rather than focusing on adapting imports to Americans’ tastes, it primarily caters to each new wave of incoming Hispanics and waits for everyone else to catch up. Which makes Goya’s trajectory a great timeline of New York (and U.S.) immigration from the Caribbean and Central and South America.

The company was started by Don Prudencio Unanue, a Spaniard who had come to Manhattan by way of Puerto Rico. He worked as a representative of Spanish food companies in the U.S. at a time when most immigrants from Spain were concentrated around West 14th Street. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he lost access to those oils and canned/dried fish and spices and decided to import on his own, as Unanue, Inc., to continue catering to fellow emigrants from Spain. In 1936 he bought the name Goya from a sardine company for $1, and the rest was anything but museum fame.

When Puerto Ricans started immigrating in waves to New York in the late ’40s and ’50s, Unanue knew from his time on the island exactly what foods they would want to buy. He first started bringing in pigeon peas (gandules) and salt cod and jars of guava or tamarind syrups, then opened a factory to produce them. Over the decades the immigration flow continued—Cubans in the ’60s, Dominicans in the ’70s, Colombians and Ecuadoreans in the ’80s, Mexicans and Central Americans in the ’90s, Brazilians in the Oughts—and Goya was always like the Boy Scouts: prepared.

Each of these Hispanic groups shares common concepts, rice and beans chief among them, but each country puts a different spin on the staples. Just for starters Cubans prefer black beans, Dominicans red; Puerto Ricans like their plantains green, while Dominicans prefer them ripe; Mexicans, meanwhile, have opened up the kitchen for displaced Southwesterners like me who are longing for hominy and pinto beans. Understanding subtle differences in palates helps Goya in another way. Rafael Toro, Goya’s director of public relations, says sales reps, who live in Latino neighborhoods, can go into a corner grocery and tell the manager with his nose to the cash register that there’s “a pocket of Peruvians close by” who will patronize the place if it stocks their staples—like aji amarillo mirasol chiles. As Toro says, “We are a company of immigrants.” Employees themselves function almost as an in-house focus group, alerting Goya to specific tastes and documenting the authenticity of products and recipes. “We don’t market to Hispanics,” Toro adds. “We market as immigrants.”

Goya started with pretty much sardines and olive oil and now carries close to 1,700 items, 200 Mexican alone. Among beans, it has 26 varieties. But Spanish olive oil and olives and other products still sell well to a customer base from many countries that have one country in common: Spain.

“The mantra of the company,” Toro says, “is to provide authentic Hispanic foods both to people coming into the country and to non- Hispanics who want authentic Puerto Rican/Peruvian/Mexican.”

It would be news to my friend from Santa Barbara, but you can find Goya foods in every state from Florida to Alaska. Most of its sales, though, are in the tristate area, where ShopRite stores give the products prominent placement. Lately it’s expanding overseas, too, selling Goya foods in Spain to meet demand from immigrants from Central and Latin America.

From the beginning, Toro notes, the company has had a tough camino to walk. Hispanics were about as welcome in Manhattan in the middle of the last century as they are in Arizona today. Goya’s strategy was always to cater to the corner stores, the bodegas throughout the borough and city at large. “We would not be where we are if not for bodegas,” he says. “We couldn’t get into a supermarket until 1958, the Safeway on 116th Street. Supermarkets didn’t want to carry us. They didn’t want Puerto Ricans or Latinos in the stores.”

Once Goya products wedged their way in, they were literally segregated. Chickpeas from Progresso and house-brand Spanish olives were in one aisle while the same items from Goya were sequestered in their own area. It’s still the case today, although I’m noticing more crossover—Goya’s canned tuna can often now be found alongside Bumble Bee.

Toro says it’s an example of Goya making lemons into agua fresca. “We didn’t start off to be in one area,” he explains. “We were put in the Spanish-Latin food section. And we took a challenge and made it an opportunity—people could see the variety; they might go to the section looking for one thing and see the variety and pick up another.”

Stores get planograms to show exactly how to display products depending on the demographics of the neighborhood. “We have salesmen on the street who work in the store and live in the neighborhood,” Toros says. “We’re grassroots selling directly to the stores.” Which is why it’s easier to find some of the more specialized products, like ancho hot sauce, in bodegas or smaller groceries than at Food Emporium.

Today Goya is thoroughly modern. It has an online store and is introducing more convenience foods like frozen tamales and pasteles, even tortilllas española. It markets canned yucca and yucca flour, fresh cheeses and dried pozole, canned mondongo (tripe stew) and frozen plantains, cream of coconut, cactus in a jar and dried chiles in bags. Esoterica from huitlacoche and the Guatemalan cherries called nance are also on offer. Of course Goya makes salsas. But it also bottles ketchup.

Regina Schrambling

Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer who left an editing job at the NYT to train at the New York Restaurant School, freelanced for magazines for 15 years, returned to the NYT for 46 months as deputy editor of the Dining section and then happily returned to freelancing. Her cat eats extremely well.