Passaic Numero Uno for Mexican firms

10 08 2008
Bianca Gonzalez talks about her business, Nicomex, in Passaic. First Street in Passaic, with its increasing number of Mexican food distributors, has become the largest hub for Mexican goods in the tri-state area. (Photos by David Bergeland/Staff Photographer)

Food distribution sales now in ‘tens of millions’

PASSAIC — The city’s First Street business district has a decidedly Mexican flavor these days.

With recent openings, Passaic is now the largest hub of Mexican food distributors on the East Coast. Roughly 20 such businesses have opened in the city in recent years, likely lured here because Passaic has the largest Mexican-born population in New Jersey, entrepreneurs said.

Puebla Foods was the first company to settle here, in the late 1970s. Juarez Wholesale opened just two weeks ago. The warehouses sell products that Mexican hearts and bellies yearn for, such as a chocolate-based mole sauce, cactus leaves and even Mexican-made marshmallows.

Everyone has a personal favorite.

“Chiles!” said Eric Suarez, 21, a customer in the parking lot of GroMex, the largest distributor in Passaic, as he loaded boxes into a truck destined for a local corner store. “Mexicans want them really spicy, burning!” he explained.

Ray Carrera, president of the city’s 25-member United Mexican Chamber of Commerce, founded in 2006, savors the blossoming industry — literally and intellectually. Carrera grew up in Lodi and remembers being one of just a few Mexicans in North Jersey, feeling out of place among ethnic groups such as the Italians and Irish.

Now, nearly one out of every five Passaic city residents is Mexican.

“I feel right at home,” said Carrera, who now lives in Passaic.

Carrera isn’t worried that the sluggish national economy and tighter immigration laws will threaten the industry. Business is guaranteed to increase based on the current population, he said.

“It’s growing merely because the Mexicans are having kids,” Carrera said.

He estimated the annual sales of the local Mexican foods distributors at “tens of millions of dollars.”

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the national Hispanic population, already the largest minority group, will triple in size and account for most of the nation’s population growth from 2005 through 2050.

Mexicans comprise the largest Hispanic group in the U.S., with 11.6 million in 2006, or a third of all Hispanics.

Mexicans are concentrated in California and Texas, but their ranks have swelled in the tri-state area and in Passaic in recent years. Of the city’s more than 67,000 residents, nearly 20 percent are Mexican, according to the census. That’s up from 7 percent of the population in 1990.

Washington, D.C., used to be the hub for Mexican products, said Alejandro Ramos, executive director of the northeast chapter of the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce.

Now it’s Passaic.

“That’s what everybody knows and says about it,” said Ramos, who is based in New York City. East of the Mississippi, Passaic is second only to Chicago, he said.

The companies have transformed a zone known for manufacturing. Puebla Foods occupies a building formerly the home of Pantasote, a company that made synthetic fabrics for trains, automobiles, and, later, shower curtains and plastic trays. GroMex, a hulking warehouse on the corner of Passaic and First streets, sits in the shadow of red-brick factories across the street, formerly the home of the New York Belting and Packing Co., which produced conveyor belts and other goods.

The new Mexican-goods companies mostly occupy existing warehouses and storefronts, sometimes adding a Mexican touch: a couple of stores have terra cotta clay Spanish-style bricks fringing the facade. GroMex planted hibiscus flowers on the perimeter of its property and a Virgin Mary shrine sits near the front entrance.

And yet, although most of the products are imported from Mexico, some come from far-flung countries such as China and India, countries that now grow Mexican chiles to take advantage of the growing market. Other products were produced in countries whose residents cook with ingredients common in Mexico.

Blanca Gonzalez, who owns Nicomex, on First Street with her husband, stood next to a massive sack of cinnamon from Sri Lanka. Then she opened a sack of costeno chiles grown in China. The Chinese variety costs $1.50 per pound compared with $9 per pound for the Mexican version, she said.

But sometimes only Mexican products will do.

Mario Orozco, 38, a GroMex forklift operator, said he prefers the sweeter taste of Mexican Coca-Cola, a product the company imports. And Gonzalez refuses to buy U.S. imitations of Mexican-made peanuts rolled in chile powder, a common snack.

“It’s got to have the taste of Mexico,” Gonzalez said.

Reach Karen Keller at 973-569-7158

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