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Hispanic Cheese: Haute Item

An explosion in demographics, gourmet interest and a growing mainstream taste for Latin foods have fueled sales. Deadly listeriosis outbreak 13 years ago nearly wiped out the industry.

June 16, 1998|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not long ago, if you asked non-Latinos what they thought of cheeses such as Queso Fresco, Panela and Cotija, likely responses would have ranged from blank stares to words like "icky" or "deadly."

Even those who had never tasted the stuff remember the largest food poisoning outbreak in California history. By the time the panic over Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. subsided 13 years ago, 40 people were dead--most of them babies, and the fledgling Hispanic cheese industry was barely surviving.

Not so today. Thanks to heightened safety, an explosion in Latino demographics and a growing mainstream taste for Latin foods, the industry is as hot as cubed Panela in tortilla soup.

California's producers of Hispanic cheese tripled their output over the past decade, and are growing nearly twice as fast as the booming state cheese industry.

Their products are crossing over to chichi menus.

And as a sign of their coming of age, about half of the state's dozen producers have formed the Hispanic Cheese Assn. to combat residual doubts about safety and tap the cheese fad sweeping the nation.

"We want to catch the California cheese wave," said Jonathan Stevens, an attorney for Los Altos Foods Inc. in Industry, which has joined the fledgling association. "It's not just, 'It's the Cheddar Cheese' or 'It's the Jack Cheese,' " he said of the industry's ubiquitous "It's the Cheese" marketing campaign. "It's also, 'It's the Hispanic Cheese.' "

The bulk of Hispanic cheeses are fresh and higher in moisture than most American cheeses. Some--such as the mild Queso Fresco and Panela--resist melting and are ideal for soups or searing. However, like milk, the cheese is more susceptible to harmful bacteria.

Most cheeses originated in Mexico, but some, like Duro Blando and Queso de Freir, are from Central America.

The industry's revival from near collapse offers a glimpse at the thriving Latino small-business economy. Started as tiny family-run operations that peddled handmade products in immigrant neighborhoods, the cheese business has grown dramatically with the surge in the Latino population. Now, the success of some cheese makers is outpacing even that growth as Latin culture--particularly food--goes mainstream.

Image problems still haunt the companies, which compete with a shadow industry that illegally produces as much cheese as they do--often making it in bathtubs and selling it door to door.

But growth nevertheless has been staggering, sending small producers scrambling for space.

At Los Altos Foods, the aging room for Cotija--a crumbling cheese with a strong flavor--is stacked so high that owner Raul Andrade jokingly calls it "New York, New York." A trim man who developed several products to satisfy his wife's longings for her native cheese, Andrade is searching for a second plant to handle yearly sales growth of 20%.

The Andrades are negotiating their second deal to produce private label cheese for a major California grocery chain. Meanwhile, other family-run operations are breaking into markets as far away as Texas, Miami and New York--part of a burgeoning national market.

Company Targets High-End Tastes

At the head of the pack sits Industry-based Cacique Inc., comfortably the king of queso. Started in 1973 behind a tiny drive-through dairy, the company's Cuban-born owners watched sales plummet 90% after the Jalisco crisis, but last year rose to $90 million.

In 1993, Cacique became the first Latino-owned company to sponsor a Rose Parade float. It vigilantly guards trade secrets with a high-security plant and formidable legal team known for taking competitors to court.

Cacique also was the first to tackle the mainstream market--its latest source of growth. The company fields calls from non-Latinos across the country clamoring for cooking tips, said President Gilbert de Cardenas Jr. The company's newest employee: an executive chef who dreams up recipes suited to high-end taste buds.

"We're finding that the opinion leaders, the more they know about Hispanic cheeses, the more they like them," said Nancy Fletcher, spokeswoman for the California Milk Advisory Board, which runs the $18-million-a-year "It's the Cheese" campaign and in April began promoting Hispanic cheese to the restaurant industry.

The burst of savvy marketing is an added bonus for an industry that ballooned as immigrants sought the cheeses of home. Manufacturers in Latin America rarely export cheese to the United States because quotas are strict and products often fail to meet federal standards.

So, producers here sprang up to fill the void. Like many first-generation Latino business owners, they pooled family resources, often holding down second jobs and peddling products by word of mouth.

The first producer was Juan Mota, who founded Artesia-based Jalisco in the late 1960s with a few thousand dollars.

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