Food & Beverage

Latin food can be health food, too: Goya chief

Goya Foods President and CEO Bob Unanue poses for a portrait in his office in Secaucus, N.J.
Yana Paskova | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Tucked within rows of products at Goya's sprawling warehouse are exactly what one would expect to see from the country's largest producer of Hispanic foods—along with a few new items that might seem as if they belong on the shelves of an upscale grocer.

Earlier this year, family owned and run Goya cut the ribbon on a $127 million corporate headquarters in northern New Jersey. The company has a virtual lock on the flavorful and rich foods of Latin America sold in the continental U.S., most notably rice, beans and regional specialties like nectars and fruit paste.

Upon closer inspection, the company's shelves also hold newer, healthier fare such as organic rice and beans, jasmine rice and coconut water. That is no accident—and no, you haven't stumbled into Whole Foods by mistake.

It's all part of a multiyear, $500 million strategy that Goya hopes will help endear the company to its natural consumer base, U.S. Hispanics, whose spending power Nielsen recently estimated would reach $1.5 trillion this year.

Javier David | CNBC
Javier David | CNBC

The company also intends to use its healthy offerings to win new converts among non-Latino consumers, many of whom don't hold the same nostalgia for the brand that foreign- and native-born Hispanics may have.

"When you come to a different country and you're displaced ... you retain language, music and food. And food is so powerful because we reach the dinner table," Bob Unanue, Goya's president, told CNBC from the company's Jersey City headquarters. "We look for the best products and the products that strike home. It's very important for the way we do business."

Read MoreDon't underestimate the power of Hispanic shoppers

Goya has annual sales of at least $1 billion, according to published reports, which the company neither confirms nor denies because it is private, and more than 2,000 different product lines. That evolution is one that Unanue explains has tracked the wave of U.S. immigration over the last several decades. Approximately 54 million Hispanics lived in the U.S. as of July 2013, according to Census Bureau data, accounting for 17 percent of the population.

"We've followed that immigration with products that are familiar, that have good taste, that are nutritious, [and] mainly making the connection with the immigrant and their food," Unanue said.

Yet English-speaking consumers are very much part of the equation as well, he said—a shift away from the company's strategy when it was first founded in 1936 by Unanue's grandfather.

"Of course, we have fused into the general market and we've been advertising in the English language for many years," Unanue explained. "The reason we go in English is to not only reach the assimilated Hispanic but the general population as well."

The rise of Goya and Latino culture in U.S.
The rise of Goya and Latino culture in U.S.

Food buyers are becoming more health conscious, helping to spur the rise of the organic food movement. According to the Organic Trade Association, annual sales of organic food soared 11 percent last year to $35.9 billion. Most of that total was in the form of produce, which comprises 12 percent of overall fruit and vegetable sales in the U.S.

Goya is using the country's focus on healthy foods to its advantage. In fact, recent revelations about the nutritional value of rice and beans—two of the biggest staples of Latin cuisine—have made Goya's food more palatable to the general public, Unanue said.

Read MoreWhich foods are worth buying organic

"We've made the discovery of how nutritious beans are, with the fiber, protein, antioxidants and vital nutrients," he told CNBC.

Those qualities were part of the reason why Unanue said Goya was tapped by first lady Michelle Obama to help advance her healthy eating initiatives. The company also cut the sodium content of its foods by 25 percent as part of New York's efforts to reduce salt intake.

"I'm not sure if we can feed the world with organics because it makes it a lot more expensive," Unanue said. "But we have the offerings and [food] that is not organic but equally nutritious."

After nearly 80 years, the company's upper and lower ranks are still staffed with members of the Unanue family. Going forward, the company that started out catering to Hispanic immigrants wants to carve out a bigger niche in larger markets and chains.

"We started out in the mom and pops [because] the major chains didn't want the Hispanic element in their stores," he said. "Nowadays, if you're not catering to the Hispanic market then you're not doing good business."