Goya finds business model has helped it thrive during COVID-19 crisis

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With operations in New Jersey and all over the country — as well as Europe — Goya CEO Bob Unanue has seen how COVID-19 has impacted the globe. It’s why his company has dramatically increased its charitable giving, whether it be donating to food banks or giving free meals to the employees he has working for him in his facilities.

Unanue also has seen how his business plan and operations — processes he put in place long before the pandemic — have helped the family-owned company thrive during the economic meltdown.

“We don’t have any debt,” he told ROI-NJ. “And we have had bigger inventories than most companies do because we’re not worried about paying off a debt. We put money into inventory.

“So, when this started, we had a very comfortable inventory and raw materials and we were able to produce immediately. What resulted in that market was that companies with ‘JIT’ — or just in time inventories — were running out of product. We found ourselves almost alone on the shelf in our category.”

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Goya Foods CEO and President Robert Unanue.

Goya, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the country, has more than 500 employees in the state and approximately 4,000 worldwide. While other food companies have had to slow their production, Unanue said Goya has been fortunate enough to be able to continue to run its factories 24/7 since the outbreak to keep up with the demand.

The demand, Unanue said, also is helping Goya increase its reach. He points to online ordering, where Goya products may be the only ones available.

“Everyone else was with a flatfooted by having tight inventories, by being driven (by financial concerns),” he said.

Unanue said the company’s 84-year history led to an adaptable business model.

“We’re used to these kinds of things,” he said. “In recessions, people stop going to restaurants and tend to go back to basics to save money. You’re finding the same thing now.”

And, while Unanue said the way people get their food — and their meals — will change post-pandemic, those changes already were taking place. Restaurants and grocery stores that weren’t ready before COVID-19 hit may not necessarily be ready when the crisis subsides.

“The road back for restaurants, which overtook grocery sales a few years ago, is going to be slow,” he said. “Restaurants will have to adapt to a different world, even going forward.”

Goya, Unanue said, began adapting years ago — from the explosion of e-commerce to the desire to have more premade meals. The company is helped, he said, by its ability to bring many of its products directly to retailers.

“We’re not a company that delivers to a warehouse,” he said. “We go directly to neighborhoods and to the demographics. We have a portfolio of products of over 2,500 products. That delivery system is more expensive, but it can give incredible variety to the consumer.”

Unanue said it also allows the company to outsell other brands — such as Nestle and Quaker — because they can’t match Goya’s reach, he said.

Unanue also proudly points to the fact Goya has been able to change its products to the changing tastes of the country. Healthier options and substitutes will allow them to weather another brewing storm — a potential hiccup in the distribution of meat due to COVID-19.

“With some facilities down, meat is becoming an issue,” he said. “But, with our bean product, we happen to have a healthy alternative protein when you combine it with rice. It’s a healthy substitute. We’re also doing organics, low-sodium items and supergrains, like quinoa.”

It’s all part of a changing food landscape — an evolution with a timeline that will only increase because of the pandemic, Unanue said.

“There’s been a resurgence of healthy eating, based on the fact that people can choose what to eat,” he said. “When you eat at restaurants, you are not necessarily as health conscious as when you take your own ingredients and you make your own meal, making sure you have the right amount of salt and spices — and portion side.”

In the short term, Unanue worries about keeping his employees safe.

Unanue said Goya quickly increased health and safety measures in Jersey City, which serves as both the company’s headquarters and its main manufacturing and distribution center in the area, and a location in Pedricktown.

He said the company continually sanitizes its work areas, has put marks on the floor to make sure employees are 6 feet apart, and made masks, gloves and sanitizers available around the facility. He admits, however, it’s tough to do.

“Some work can be done at home, but loading trucks — that’s something that you can’t do from home,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can there, but there’s no substitute for producing and delivering merchandise, whether it’s receiving or loading.”

Unanue said the employees deserve credit for keeping the company running through these times — and that he finds ways to thank them.

“We have shown a little bit of that appreciation with bonuses and extra salaries, but also through lunches and dinners,” he said. “We’re a 24-hour operation, so we provide food. It helps that our employees don’t have to run out to grab a meal; it’s catered in. I think that’s a big benefit and it’s a thank you to our group for stepping up to the plate.”

Goya, he said, has had a history of giving to food banks. And, while he appreciates the government trying to help as many people as possible, he said the biggest help will come when it’s safe to reopen society. That’s something that can’t come soon enough, he said.

“I think we need to focus on helping the vulnerable, but we need to get back to work as soon as it’s safe to do so,” he said.

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