When Sylvia Melendez Klinger had family visit her in Chicago from Mexico, she ordered pizza for the kids. “It’s the universal food, no matter where you’re from everyone knows it.”
But she took note of one major difference. Her Mexican nephews would only eat their slices when dipped in ranch dressing. “It reminded me that there are always subtle variations in people’s tastes, even in people you think you have figured out.”
Klinger, a nutritionist who consults with companies trying to make in-roads into the Hispanic market, believes that kind of sensitivity is necessary for pizzeria owners who are looking to push their product further into the local Hispanic community. “You can’t just print up some Spanish-language ads and door hangers and expect a crowd. You need to put some effort into getting their business, and when you do it can very profitable.”
According to the latest Census there are more than 50 million people in the U.S. with Hispanic heritage, which averages out to one in six Americans. “I’m sure there are many pizza shop owners who see that there’s a Hispanic population around them but they don’t know why they’re not coming through their doors,” says Nancy Hernandez, president of Abrazo, a marketing consulting firm in Milwaukee. “If you dug deeper you’d probably find that their pizza purchases were significant, but the shop owner’s job is to find out who that competitor is and more importantly, why them?”
One company with great success in the Hispanic market is Dallas-based Pizza Patron, which has 100 stores in seven states. “In the Latino culture there’s a tradition of ‘Friends First, Business Later,'” says Andrew Gamm, brand manager for Pizza Patron. “People take that to heart, you can’t hard sell them. You’ve got to get to know them first so we emphasize that our franchisees get involved in the local community. In fact, we require that the manager live in the trade area of the store.”
Pizza Patron can regularly be found at local church carnivals, street festivals and holiday events with giveaways and free samples. “It can be a lot of work, but this is our target market. We do what we have to do to show them what we’re about,” says Gamm. “Once you do that leg work though, you see results. The great thing about Hispanic customers is when you show up for them in their community, they remember you and they will patronize your store once they see you’ve made an effort.”
Part of identifying the Hispanic market around you, experts say, is not simply a matter of counting. “It’s become a very stable market with many more second and third generation individuals here than those who have newly immigrated,” says Gabriela Neves,co-owner of Factory 360, a multi-cultural event marketing firm in New York City. “You can’t assume that lots of Spanish-language flyers and coupons will do the trick because many of those Hispanics who have been born here may not speak Spanish. They’ve assimilated almost completely but still identify with Hispanic culture so you’ve got to be ‘culturally friendly.’ Go deeper into the ages of the typical customer and what their interests are. You’ll probably find they dovetail with most of the other mainstream groups.”
At the same time, however, it pays to have at least one bilingual staff member. “If someone walks into your shop and their English skills are limited, it’s very welcoming to them to place their order and ask questions in Spanish,” says Hernandez. “It shows you want their business.”
Getting the subtleties of the market includes understanding the differences in Hispanic culture. “Our stores in Miami, which attract primarily Cuban and South American customers, have a different approach from our stores in the Southwest where we see mostly Mexican-American customers,” says Gamm.
For instance, jalapeños are offered as a topping on Pizza Patron pies and they’re a favorite throughout the Southwest. “But, we can’t give them away in Miami,” says Gamm. “Customers there don’t like them.”
A three-meat specialty pie made with chorizo sausage is another big seller among Mexican customers but doesn’t translate well to Hispanics in other cultures. And before the company introduced its churro dessert sticks filled with carmel, their Miami marketing team gave headquarters some advice on the name. “The name we had chosen had a harmless meaning to the Mexican consumer, but to those from South America it had a different, vulgar meaning, so we changed it,” said Gamm.
Getting involved in the community, by joining the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce or checking out some of the area’s ethnic stores and restaurants can help give you ideas on how to drive traffic through your doors. “Empanadas, which are pastries filled with various things, are very common in Hispanic culture, but they’re prepared in different ways,” says Klinger. “I recently saw a shop that had empanadas filled with marinara sauce, similar to a calzone, that were selling very well in a Latino bakery in Miami. If you’re aware of these mini-trends in your own neighborhood, you can adjust and take advantage of them.”
Like every other market segment, Hispanic consumers are using the Internet and social media with greater frequency. “We’re seeing smart phone use among Hispanics growing with the rest of the population, and they’re very active in social media, if not more so than other groups,” says Hernandez. “You often see bilingual people with Facebook pages in two languages so they’re communicating with two different worlds. If you’re just focusing attention on English-language Facebook, you may need to shift some of your marketing to the Spanish-language side as well.”
Hispanic consumers are also becoming more health-conscious, and are trying to make healthy food choices for their children. “Like other groups, they’re looking for vegetarian options, lean meats, baked-not-fried goods,” says Klinger. “It pays to advertise that.”
Above all, the experts say maintain a high-quality product. Says Gamm: “Our best selling pizzas are the traditional pepperoni, sausage, cheese, if you do those well and offer the special toppings they may like such as jalapeños, you’re doing fine.”
John C. Morell is a California-based freelance writer.