Oregonian: Juanita’s

HOOD RIVER — Growth of the Northwest’s Hispanic population and interest in Mexican cookery has propelled the parent company of Juanita’s Fine Foods to projected sales this year of between $5 million and $10 million.

Not bad for the family of Antonio and Juanita Dominguez. When they and their 14 children completed the trek from Blythe, Calif., to the Hood River Valley 34 years ago in a balky 1959 Chevy station wagon, they had $300 to their name.

“When I see ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ that’s our story,” says Sally “Celia” Mariscal, the eldest of the siblings and manager of a factory that, among other things, turns out 3,400 corn tortillas an hour.

Founded 24 years ago, Dominguez Family Enterprises and its 70 employees today produce and deliver a variety of Mexican foods and household products, primarily tortillas and chips bearing the Juanita’s label. Other fresh products carry labels for major grocery chains, such as the La Fresca label for Safeway.

The distribution side of the business sources and delivers dozens of other products, everything from soap to jalapenos and candy, including such familiar labels as La Costena, Embassa and Las Palmas.

Customers include mom ‘n’ pop stores and grocery group such as WinCo, Costco, Albertson’s, Foor4Less and Safeway.

“We’re a lot bigger than people think we are,” says sales manager and chief executive Luis Dominguez.

A self-described workaholic, Dominguez “quarterbacks” this low-profile, high volume family business. Eleven of his siblings share ownership and work in the company’s diverse operations, which include a warehouse and manufacturing facility in Pine Grove, south of Hood River; and Juanita’s Marketas in Hood River, The Dalles, and Sunnyside, Wash.

On his own, Luis Dominguez has started Dominguez Foods of Washington, which markets spices under the Su Cocina (your kitchen) label, and runs small Hood River taxi and answering services.

Craig Ortega, executive vice president of Columbia River Bank, has been working with the Dominguez family since 1993. He sees three key factors to the company’s success: Hard work, controlled growth, and timing.

“With the growth of the Hispanic population, their market has grown tremendously in the last 10 to 15 years,” Ortega says.

According to U.S. Census figures, the Hispanic population of Oregon grew by 144 percent in the 1990s. Today, Latinos comprise 8 percent of the state’s population.

In Hood River County, the trend is even more pronounced. With a populace that is 25 percent Hispanic, the county looks far different than the one the Dominguez family chose to call home 34 years ago.

Back then, most Hispanics were migrants, much as Antonio and Juanita had been in the ’50s and early ’60s. When they arrived, Luis recalls, “We were only one of three resident families here.”

The family camped in a local park and bathed in the East Fork of the Hood River until Frank Hood, a local grower, provided them a rickety residence with a roof.

As the family settled in, got jobs and improved their lives, they started to branch out from fruit trees.

“My dad always believed in school first,” Luis says. “After my first harvest, I said ‘I never want to do that again; I need an education.”’

Elected student body president at Hood River Valley High School in 1973, Luis worked at the local Rosauer’s market, then landed a job as manager of the Mount Hood Store. Three years later, the owner, Jack Mills, helped Luis secure a Small Business Administration loan to buy the store.

“When I took over the store, I had $65,” he recalls.

He watched and learned. As more Hispanics took up residence, they wanted authentic Mexican foods. And interest among non-Hispanics in natural foods pointed to the potential for fresh tortillas.

Family members pooled their paychecks and, with a $5,000 bank loan, assembled $20,000 in 1977 to start making corn tortillas in a former Hood River convenience store.

“We were so naive,” Luis recalls. “We only borrowed enough to buy the machine, but not enough to buy bags.”

Luis sold his grocery store in 1983 “when I saw a bigger market for tortillas,” and a year later, other family members quit their jobs to invest themselves in the family business. They bought their current facility in 1989.

Since then, growth of the U.S. tortilla market alone has reached $4 billion a year, according to the Tortilla Industry Association.

Self-taught — none of the family members has a college degree — the Dominguezes haven’t escaped the usual bumps and bruises of building a business.

Ortega, their banker, says they pulled through by seeking outside help, and generally managing the pace of growth.

“There were times when they could’ve taken on new territory, but they had the foresight to say, ‘We’re not ready.”’

Overly rapid expansion three years ago, however, cost them a Washington distributorship. Then they had to negotiate a brand dispute with similarly named Juanita’s Foods of Wilimington, Calif.

And marketing consultant Paul Bradley says Boise-based WinCo stores, one of the Dominguez’s first major accounts, shifted some product lines to another suppliers two years ago. That trimmed about $1.5 million in annual sales from the Dominguez ledgers.

“Since then, they’ve regained about $1.1 million of those sales,” Bradley says.

Luis says the company in the last few years had been refocusing on service to existing customers. “We don’t have to be bigger, we just have to take care of our customers better,” he says.

“They come to us because they know we act faster,” says Joe Dominguez, vice president in charge of purchasing and distribution.

As an example, when they learned that a new WinCo store in Idaho couldn’t get an order in place for its opening, the Dominguezes loaded a truck, headed east at 1 a.m. and arrived six hours later. The store manager was stunned.

“We’re a little bit rebels,” Luis says. “Sometimes we don’t make any money, but it keeps us on with the customers.”

It’s a strategy keyed to success, says Dave Lakey, president of The Lake Group, a Portland food consulting company.

In the current flat market, large food companies see profit growth in the Mexican food niche, Lakey says. But the bigger the company, Lakey says, the less its ability to serve individual consumer groups.

“The advantage to a Juanita’s is the market is still fragmented, and in that market, the small players can grow and prosper,” he says.

Lakey says up-front costs and production demands might make it tough for Dominguez Family Enterprises to crack the shelves of Safeway, Kroger’s (Fred Meyer) and Albertson’s.

“But there’s plenty of money in the 20 percent of the market that’s independent,” Lakey says.

Luis Dominguez appreciates that.

“I like to deal with the independents,” he says. “They have the same hunger and needs as any self-employed owner.”

Ken Ornellas, Food4Less store director in Salem, says he gets quicker access and a more personal touch with Dominguez Family Enterprises than he does with a bureaucratic national company.

Three years ago for the Christmas holiday, Food4Less and the Dominguezes created a tamale kit in a steaming pot.

“It’s done excellent,” Ornellas says. “They were big enough and yet small enough you could do something like that.”

The Dominguezes say that shows how they use invention and education to expand markets. They once served an exclusively Latino populace. Half their customers now are non-Hispanic.

“Our challenge is ourselves, not our competitors,” Luis says.

Ortega, the banker, says the Dominguez family is deliberately modest. “They don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves,” he says.

Out of the spotlight, he says, they have created a scholarship fund for Hood River Valley High School seniors, and give back generously to their community.

“This valley has been really good to us,” Joe says. “We couldn’t ask for a better place.”

Luis, the patriarch now since the death of his father in 1997, says “we’re very shy. I don’t like to brag.”

Later, looking back on the distance the family has traveled, he grows more reflective.

“We’re a good example,” he says, “that the Mexican community can do anything they want.”