By now, Arte de Mexico, a North Hollywood firm that imports Mexican artifacts, is used to supplying American hotels, restaurant chains and movie studios. Customers from Japan, West Germany and Australia aren't so unusual, either.
But company founder and owner Jerry Stoffers says he knew the firm had arrived when he started getting customers from Mexico itself.
Arte de Mexico bills itself as the nation's biggest importer of Mexican decorative arts, including carvings, pottery and papier-mache. Stoffers says he spends about a third of his time in Mexico, where he will buy just about anything that strikes his fancy and that the customers back home might like.
The items range from an ornate Mexican street light to a menagerie of papier-mache animals to a set of antique horsehair sofas.
"There is nobody who remotely approaches us," Stoffers said, and his customers tend to agree.
"You couldn't go to Mexico and find as much as he has," said Dale Ter Bush, design vice president for the El Torito restaurant chain and a longtime Stoffers customer.
Convenience Worth the Price
But some customers say the price of such variety and convenience can be stiff.
"Some things he pays pennies for and charges us dollars for," Ter Bush complained. But he said other suppliers aren't much cheaper, and he acknowledged that the convenience is worth it.
"We've gone on trips to Mexico and found Jerry's place the most convenient and economical" considering time and travel costs, said Keith Karr, manager of the design concepts division of Wasserstrom Co., a big restaurant interiors firm in Columbus, Ohio. "There are a few importers in Texas, but they're small compared to Jerry."
Stoffers insists that his prices are so reasonable that many retailers buy from him to resell to the public, with whom Stoffers does not often deal.
"The stuff is very difficult to find and get out of Mexico," he said.
Stoffers says he has no price list. The company's storage facilities are lined with hundreds of jugs, plates, doors, stone columns, paper flowers and other Mexican products, and nothing bears a price tag.
Buyers must make an appointment and go through the facility with Stoffers. When they see something they want, he tells them what it costs.
Ter Bush, who sometimes spends $15,000 to $20,000 on a single restaurant at Arte de Mexico, said a customer the size of El Torito can haggle with Stoffers.
Sold Wares on Corner
In a manner of speaking, Stoffers founded Arte de Mexico 19 years ago at Hollywood and Vine, where he used to stand on the street hawking the wares he brought back from forays into Mexico. Having left home in rural Iowa at the age of 15, the 38-year-old Stoffers fell into selling Mexican artifacts as a path toward his childhood ambition: getting rich.
At the beginning, Stoffers bought a few things at a time, which he brought back by car. Eventually, he cemented relationships with representatives in Mexico, bought warehouses in North Hollywood, hired help and had a going business.
Today, Arte de Mexico has inventory, all acquired for $5 million to $7 million without any borrowing, in seven North Hollywood warehouses. Arte de Mexico and its sister company, Contract Fabricators, which makes products such as Mexican chairs to order, together had sales of $3.5 million to $4 million last year, Stoffers said. He said sales should be $4 million to $5 million this year.
Stoffers, who speaks little Spanish, said those sales come one-third from inventory, one-third from custom manufacturing and one-third from leasing. The fabrication business makes a variety of products at Mexican-owned factories, including ornate ironwork and custom-made doors, but its importance is diminishing, compared to the other parts of the business.
Companies such as El Torito are one reason Stoffers' business has bloomed. A boom in Mexican food and the strong population growth and business expansion in the Sun Belt in recent years have contributed to Arte de Mexico's success.
El Torito, for example, had about 21 restaurants 10 years ago, said its marketing vice president, Thomas Saiza. Now it has about 200.
Arte de Mexico also leases items to movie studios making films about Mexico, and it sells to the hotel industry, where Mexican motifs have gained popularity.
Stoffers said that he gets most of his products from individual craftsmen in rural Mexico, from whom he commissions work constantly, and that the items he sells would cost two, three or four times as much if produced here.
The ebullient Stoffers is widely described as a shrewd businessman with an excellent eye for what will sell. He has become so well known as a purveyor of Mexican goods that he even sells to Mexicans who want to save the trouble of scouring their own nation for artifacts.
Gary Dethlefs, president of the Louis Owen design firm in Seattle, described Stoffers as an eager salesman and supplier who can find or fabricate almost anything.
"He's a combination of Cal Worthington and the Seabees," Dethlefs said.