By Doreen Hemlock
Special to News is my Business
Puerto Rico kicked up its export program a notch in October, fielding the largest government-backed delegation yet to a food industry show — 15 companies exhibiting their wares at a Miami Beach event.
The government’s Puerto Rico Trade and Export Co. subsidized the group, cutting the cost for each manufacturer to operate a booth and providing an attractive pavilion sporting the island’s name.
The Puerto Rican producers took part in the Americas Food and Beverage Trade Show and Conference held Oct. 28-29 at the Miami Beach Convention Center. The industry event is popular among buyers who distribute food in the Caribbean, Central America and South America and not open to the public.
About 500 exhibitors from 22 countries participated in this year’s Americas show. Nearly 10,000 people were forecast to attend, and roughly $200 million in sales were projected from their meetings, according to organizers from the World Trade Center-Miami.
Startup Destilería Cruz of Jajuya, a maker of handcrafted “pitorro” rum, was among those making sales.
Owner José Cruz said he hooked up with a distributor group including Wholesale Exports and Imports LLC of Miami to sell his “PitoRico”-brand flavored rums across the Caribbean, in Central America and in South America. Cruz said he had made initial contact with the group at the New York Fancy Food Show earlier this year in another Puerto Rico government-backed export event.
“In our first year with this distributor, we project nearly $1 million in sales outside Puerto Rico,” said Cruz, who began producing his flavored rums in December. “That’s more than our sales on the island.”
Veteran exporter Dulzura Borincana of Moca also hoped for new deals to sell beyond the United States.
The 17-year-old company makes tropical candies from guava, coconut, sweet potato, sesame and other farm products and now sells about $3 million per year. In Puerto Rico, it supplies major retail chains from CVS to Walmart, and it recently began selling across the United States through Marshall’s, TJ Maxx and Burlington chains, said company co-owner Carmen Ríos.
Dulzura’s next frontier is supplying other Caribbean islands and Latin America. Come 2014, it’s set to sell to the PriceSmart club-store chain, mainly in the Central American region. That likely will mean exporting a 40-foot container carrying some $50,000 of its candies every month, she said.
To meet growing demand, Dulzura plans to expand in Moca from its current 7,200-square-foot factory into a site triple that size. And it will slowly grow payroll from today’s 35 employees to 50, said Ríos.
“We’re promoting our candy as a Caribbean sweet, not just a Puerto Rican specialty,” said Ríos. “We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves but rather to appeal to a broader palate. That’s key to exporting.”
Also exhibiting in Puerto Rico’s pavilion were honey makers Apiarios Caraballo, flour and baked goods producer Molinos de Puerto Rico, “pitorro” maker Destileria Coquí, milk and cheese producer Indulac, “coquito” coconut-rum drink maker Empresas Alemañy, food conglomerate Pan American Grain, frozen foods maker La Senda, Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters, sausage maker Carmela Foods, chips producer Round Triangle Foods, fruit farm Sucesión J. Serrllés Second and farmers AF Produce.
Many attendees stopped for tastings at the booth of Practical Food Solutions of San Juan. It produces “La Mofongueria”-brand of frozen “mofongos,” made from mashed green plantains, sweet plantains or yucca and prepared in cup-like forms to be filled with shrimp, chicken or other toppings.
The three-year-old company already sells its Puerto Rican “comfort foods” in the Chicago area, home to a large Puerto Rican community. It now seeks distributors in U.S. east coast areas that also host big numbers of Puerto Ricans and others who like the island’s cuisine, said sales and marketing manager Mauricio Hernández.
“It’s not like mofongo made in Miami, because the taste of Puerto Rico’s plantains is different,” said Hernández, who expects the company to double its workforce to nearly 20 employees soon.
Puerto Rico sent nine food producers to the Americas show in Miami Beach last fall and roughly a dozen to the New York food show in June, according to Puerto Rico Trade and Export Co.
The agency is looking to further help island exporters by setting up distribution centers for Puerto Rican products in select U.S. east coast markets, said Executive Director Francisco Chévere. Officials are now considering distribution centers in the New York area and in Florida, possibly Orlando.