Demand grows in Orlando for Puerto Rican food, beer

Demand grows in Orlando for Puerto Rican food, beer

Original post Kyle Arnold

KISSIMMEE — Hector Godines has scrambled for the past six months to find Puerto Rican brands of coffees, cookies and other favorites to put on the shelves at his Hispanic grocery store Kissimmee Meat and Produce.

And when the Puerto Rican beer called Medalla Light returned to Florida last week after a four-year absence, the supermarket manager watched customers fill up shopping carts with the 12 packs.

“Business has been growing for a few years, but after the hurricane [Maria], things just went crazy,” Godines said. “People are coming to me every week wanting new things from Puerto Rico.”

Supermarkets and distributors in Central Florida and food companies back in Puerto Rico are pushing to bring more products to the Orlando area, from food and beer to spices and cleaning supplies. The demand has resulted in new stores and expanding distributors in Central Florida and is prompting Puerto Rican manufacturers to ramp up shipments to Florida.

An estimated 50,000 Puerto Ricans have come to Florida since the September hurricane devastated the island.

Central Florida already was the nation’s second largest haven for Puerto Ricans, with about 332,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 figures. But as longtime Puerto Ricans in Central Florida have adapted buying habits to locally available products, the new influx is looking for familiar items straight from home, say owners of businesses that cater to the transplants.

“It’s hard to get products from Puerto Rico, particularly seasonings and things like that used in everyday cooking,” said Amilcar Cordova, a Puerto Rican who came to Orlando 20 years ago and has started an advertising agency here. “But when I heard about the beer, I was excited.”

Not only do people miss the products, but they also feel like they are helping Puerto Rico rebuild economically, Cordova said.

Puerto Rico has an unusual cuisine influenced by its Caribbean location, Hispanic roots and American territorial ties.

For instance, a popular cookie brand, Cameo, originally came from Canada through Nabisco and now is made exclusively in Puerto Rico. The cookies are nearly identical to vanilla-flavored Oreos, but shaped differently and the cookie is slightly less sweet.

Fast food chain Taco Maker Grill started as a franchise in Utah before taking off in Puerto Rico with more than 100 locations. It has expanded to Central Florida with two locations.

Even stores such as Walmart have seen increasing demand for Puerto Rican ingredients, said James Schroder, manager of the chain’s Lake Nona store such as coconut milk and plantains.

Food distributor Titan Products of Puerto Rico, which came to Central Florida five years ago to cater to the sizable Puerto Rican population, has gone through 90,000 cases of Medalla Light in the week since it was released. It’s also hiring more employees, buying trucks and expanding warehouse space.

“I’m not sure what it is about the beer that has people so excited, other than the familiarity and nostalgia factor,” said Rafael Julia, vice president of sales and marketing for Titan Products. “It just reminds them of home.”

The company also sells Puerto Rican favorites such as juices, frozen pastries, spices and cookies.

Medalla was carried in the United States between 2004 and 2014, but cut sales because of a distribution problem, said Jorge Bracero, chief marketing officer with the beer’s brewer, Cervercera de Puerto Rico. During those four years, they heard constantly from consumers in Florida and Medalla beer was a popular souvenir for people visiting the island.

“Now we are just targeting stores that serve Puerto Rican consumers,” Bracero said. “Then we can expand from there.”

Puerto Rican manufacturer Best Seasonings Group has seen more inquiries from Central Florida since Hurricane Maria, said owner Efrain Montero-Arroyo. Best Seasonings’ signatures product is sofrito, a base condiment in Puerto Rican cooking.

“It’s an everyday product in a lot of Puerto Rican dishes,” Montero-Arroyo said. “It used to be that just a few little bodegas were carrying it, but now it’s moving deeper into Florida.”

Puerto Rico grocery store owner Willer Velez Quinones opened a store in Kissimmee in December. Business has been good, he said, and sales have increased about 5 percent every month since.

“Definitely what they ask us most are butter cookies, and I am bringing in different brands,” said Velez Quinones in Spanish. “They keep asking us for products from the island.”