Sunday, February 11, 2001

Hispanics enrich area diversity

Businesses struggle to meet new needs for shoppers, workers

By Lisa Biank Fasig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Life in Greater Cincinnati has gotten much better since Tino Barbosa moved here from Mexico 10 years ago. Back then, the former restaurateur could find only one international soccer team to play on and none of his favored matitas gum. These days, there are more than 20 Hispanic teams alone, and plenty of his native sweets.

        But, Mr. Barbosa said, when it comes to meeting the consumer needs of the burgeoning Hispanic market, this Midwestern town moves more like a deflating ball on an unmowed field.

        “I love Cincinnati. But ... some people are uptight. They need to be more open, I think,” the 34-year-old said from his Mexican folk arts store, La Tradicion.

[photo] Tino Barbosa, owner of La Tradicion on Garfield Place, peers through a display case filled with fine silver jewelry from Mexico.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        Hispanic “people are coming this way,” he said. “We have to be ready; we have to be prepared for them.”

        The trick, for many merchants, is learning how to accommodate them.

        The Hispanic population is estimated to have grown more than 42 percent in eight-county Greater Cincinnati from 1990 to 2000. These Mexicans, South Americans and Central Americans live among us, shop with us and work with us, some in executive positions at major firms.

        They have created a substantial market here of more than 13,300 people, according to information provided by MapInfo Data, a market research and demographics firm.

        Yet in Cincinnati, with a few notable exceptions, many retailers and restaurant chains are not responding to Hispanic consumers. This could be because the Hispanic population, however booming, still is less than 1 percent of the total area population.

        Yet diversity training and Hispanic culture experts say it's a mistake to ignore the market. Hispanics are very loyal people, and if they like a market, their numbers will grow. Consider how many Hispanics living in Greater Cincinnati are 17 and younger — almost 26 percent.

[photo] Ray and Susana Garcia own La Mexicana in downtown Newport.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        “I think the Midwest is having a tough time coping with these changes,” said Victor Ornelas, chief executive of Ornelas & Associates, a Dallas-based firm that trains American companies to accommodate Hispanics. “They have to educate themselves and their work force about diversity training. If everybody looks and sounds (the same) and comes from the same background, then it's tough to embrace difference.”

        In the eight-county region, the Hispanic population has grown to an estimated 13,371 in 2000 from 9,377 people in 1990, according to MapInfo Data. The population is expected to grow to 14,676 in 2005.

Major buying power
        It is a viable market — why else would Procter & Gamble be the top Hispanic advertiser in the United States? In 1999, the nation's 31 million Hispanics spent $383 billion on goods and services, according to the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth. In 2001, they are expected to spend $450 billion.

        “The Hispanic market is only going to grow. It's a huge market, and their buying power is tremendous,” said Myrna Marofsky, president of ProGroup, a Minneapolis-based diversity consulting firm. “I would actively be recruiting and seeking employees who are bilingual. I would definitely be preparing for the market.”

        Some merchants ignore the Hispanic population because of misconceptions about spending power and because of the language barrier. News stories about illegal aliens have fed misconceptions that many Hispanics should not be here and are poor.

        “A lot of people think, "Oh, they don't speak English; they must not be legal,'” said Patrick Elersic, officer in charge at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Cincinnati. But, he said, that is not true.

    • The Spanish Journal 513-225-8543
    • Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati
        Many Hispanics in Cincinnati transfer here for jobs at major companies. Cincinnati Hispanics are managers, lawyers and engineers as well as dishwashers, construction workers and hotel maids.

Reliable workers
        “Corporate America is realizing that Hispanic workers are very good, hard workers and very reliable,” said George Perez, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Spanish Journal, in Hyde Park.

        Mr. Perez said Cincinnati used to be known as a white-collar Hispanic area. But lately, there has been a growth in ads seeking in blue-collar workers and bilingual workers. He said a bilingual secretary can fetch $35,000 a year.

        But because of language and cultural barriers, newly transplanted Hispanics are a tight-knit group, often relying on one another for housing, transportation and references on services and products.

        Understanding how to accommodate Hispanics means learning about their culture, religious leanings, family values and native foods. Following are the stories of how two storied Cincinnati companies, Kroger Co. and Frisch's Restaurants Inc., are trying to meet the needs of Hispanic shoppers and workers.

Jicama and Nescafe
        When he founded his grocery company back in 1883, Barney Kroger didn't envision selling Goya hominy or poblano chiles.

        But then Barney met Juan.

        Several years ago, when Tristate Kroger managers noticed a rise in requests for Mexican and Central/South American foods, they turned to their counterparts in the West. In Texas and nearby states, Kroger has catered to Hispanics for years. With the help of the Westerners, Kroger began installing 4-foot Hispanic food sections locally and adding produce such as plantains, cilantro and jicama.

        “Cincinnati is probably behind the rest of the country” when it comes to Hispanic diversity, said Art Wulfeck, assistant manager of communications at Kroger. “I know in Texas that's been a huge part of their market for 10, 15 years.”

        But that didn't prepare local Kroger workers for some of the challenges in meeting Hispanic needs, such as the popularity of non-Procter & Gamble goods, the issue of where to put new products and how to communicate.

        The nation's largest grocery store company doesn't yet have a formal program to address communicating with Hispanic shoppers. So far, Mr. Wulfeck said the stores have identified Spanish-speaking employees who can help non-English-speaking shoppers. Local Kroger stores also are considering bilingual signs.

        “We probably should create a program to train our current employees,” he said. “We're looking at it.”

        Kroger, and other major chains, should. Communication is a barrier to many Hispanics, said Ray Garcia, owner of La Mexicana grocery store in Newport.

        “What I think is they feel uncomfortable, first of all, because of the language,” said Mr. Garcia, who is expanding his 3-year-old store to meet demand. “That's why they come here.

        “If they don't satisfy the market, it's better for us because we're Mexican and we know the needs.”

        Kroger is learning the needs with help from its Western associates, but it still encounters surprises, like the demand for votive candles, and goods by Colgate and Nescafe. This might be a Procter & Gamble town, but in many Latin and Mexican markets, Colgate and Nescafe are king.

        The problem is that these products must take the place of other store items. At Kroger, merchandise is handled by subcategory managers who supervise narrow product areas, such as fruits or dried meats. Each manager must decide what stays and what goes in a section.

        “It's really a matter of allocating the space in the store,” Mr. Wulfeck said. “I've got something there now, so what am I going to move?”

        That said, Mr. Garcia recognizes Greater Cincinnati is much better at meeting Hispanic needs now than when he arrived in Kentucky in 1979. Back then, he had to go to a local pizzeria just to get pepper flakes.

        “I was just about to cry,” he said. “We couldn't get any tortillas, any peppers.”

Cultural lessons
        If merchandising for Hispanics is like learning a new job, then employing them is a study in cultural diversity.

        When Frisch's began employing Mexicans, Costa Ricans, Guatemalans and El Salvadorans two years ago, paying a starting salary of $7 to $8 an hour, it quickly realized they were hard-working, reliable employees.

        But, chief executive Craig Maier said, Hispanics do not understand all American work rules, such as product discounts — they expect to eat for free. There are racial and cultural conflicts among Hispanic nationalities that call for creative scheduling.

        Mr. Maier said he is willing to accommodate them.

        “When you take care of them, they take care of you,” he said. “They make wonderful employees.”

        Taking care of them means giving Hispanic workers full-time hours — they don't understand part-time work — and it means paying overtime. It also means explaining taxes, which often take foreign workers by surprise.

        But foreign workers do know the rules about legality, and getting around the law.

        According to Mr. Elersic at the INS, employers need two valid forms of identification, such as a Social Security card or green card, to accept a worker as legal. The employer then must fill out I-9 “employment eligibility verification forms” to allow employment.

        “If they have an obviously counterfeit document, they should not accept it,” Mr. Elersic said.

        At Frisch's, Mr. Maier said some people have tried to use faked documents and were immediately rejected. “You cannot put the company at risk,” he said. “The fines are not inconsequential.”

        Once employed at Frisch's, managers learned that Hispanics should not be lumped into a homogenous group. Each nationality is proud of its culture, and, as Mr. Maier put it, a faux pas such as referring to Costa Ricans as Mexicans makes the workers “huffy.”

        He explained that conflicts exist between Hispanic groups and the sexes. Case in point: Frisch's managers realized they could not schedule a Hispanic man and woman together, because the man tended to dictate all the work to the woman. Mexican Indians are not scheduled with other Mexicans, either, because of class differences.

        Americans would easily be fired for such behavior. But the Hispanics need more time to understand that these conflicts are unacceptable, Mr. Maier said. And they are worth it, because their turnover is lower than among non-Hispanics.

        “They don't understand why they should be sensitive to it,” he said.

        Frisch's does have diversity training for employees and managers, who now include two Hispanics making annual salaries in the mid-$30,000 range. It also is teaching its managers basic Spanish, because many Hispanic workers do not speak English.

        As for working out with workers about their meal discounts, Frisch's just deducts a certain amount of money from each paycheck, say $2 to $3 for each lunch shift.

        The workers might eat more, but the system satisfies everyone. And when it comes to learning new cultures, that is the best a lot of companies can hope for.

        “You do right by them,” Mr. Maier said. “They do right by you.”


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