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Miami moms' Spanish dolls a hit

Three years after Abuelita Rosa and Abuelito Pancho sang their way into our bilingual, bicultural hearts, the plush, cuddly family known for its ay-tan-dulce lullabies and nursery rhymes has been adding members and prospering beyond its creators' dreams.

From testing sales potential in two local stores in 2005, now Baby Abuelita dolls -- which sing when you press their hands -- are sold in 3,000 Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Target, Toys R Us, Kmart and CVS stores as well as www.babyabuelita.com. The Miami mothers who came up with the idea have welcomed Baby Andrea, Baby Tita and Baby Mimi, too.

Baby Abuelita also sells a line of musical books, with lyrics both in Spanish and English translation, and a series of ring tones for cell phones. It recently inked a contract with a home products company for a new line of infant and toddler bedding, linens and other related soft home furnishings. And it's launching a direct-to-home DVD that follows Abuelita Rosa, Abuelito Pancho and their grandchildren through 15-minute episodes, a move that investors predict will draw more cross-cultural buyers as well as open up licensing opportunities.

"Sometimes,'' says CEO Carol Fenster, "I think we're going to wake up and it will turn out to be a dream. We've gone from working around the kitchen table to having an office in South Miami.''

Muses partner Hilda Argilagos-Jimenez: "At the beginning all we knew was that we didn't want these nursery rhymes to be forgotten. The idea was to preserve these memories we had for our own children.''

Baby Abuelita has tapped into a growing market. Hispanics are now the largest minority in the country --and the fastest growing. Their purchasing power topped $860 billion in 2007, an increase of 307 percent since 1990.

That spending is expected to increase to more than $1.2 trillion five years from now, according to an annual report on minority buying power by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

While other bilingual and Spanish-language toys have cashed in on the trend, Baby Abuelita products are different, says Alexandra Rodriguez, an assistant professor of marketing at Florida International University. "What sets them apart is the emphasis on grandparents,'' she adds. "The others focus on the children.''

What's more, while toys like Dora the Explorer are more commercialized and use Spanish words only here and there, Abuelita Rosa and her crew "are much more homey. They're more authentic and I think that has the potential to appeal to many people,'' Rodriguez adds.

Fenster, a therapist who closed her office to devote herself to the company, and Argilagos-Jimenez, a dance teacher at Southwood Middle School in south Miami-Dade, intended it that way. "Other dolls are specifically targeting children. We feel that our strongest suit is the ability to bring families together. There are a lot of parents and grandparents buying them for their children because of their own experiences.''

One of them is Terry Medina, who bought one of the dolls for her pregnant daughter at Wal-Mart after seeing them at a friend's house. "They're so cute. It brings part of my childhood to my own grandchildren. These are the words I heard as a little girl.''

The creation of the Baby Abuelita products is one of those heartwarming Miami stories that elicit a I-wish-I had-thought-of-that reaction. Argilagos-Jimenez considered compiling Spanish-language nursery rhymes and lullabies in a book when her first nephew was born several years ago. When she shared her idea with Fenster, the mother of one of her students, Fenster suggested a singing doll. Thus began a laborious learning experience.

But it was precisely this lack of industry know-how -- and the cuddly product that spoke to the warm memories of so many Hispanic consumers -- that probably spelled their success.

"We didn't know what we were up against, so we just kept doing what we had to,'' Fenster recalls.

From the beginning, the women were adamant about sticking to their vision. They wanted a product, first and foremost, to preserve and promote the Hispanic culture through song.

So Abuelita Rosa wears a bata de casa, a housedress, and Abuelito Pancho, named for Argilagos-Jimenez's own grandfather, sports a guayabera. They come in boxes that look like rocking chairs.

In a toy market where products are slick and highly commercialized, "we're willing not to be formulaic,'' Fenster says. "We've operated from our gut.''

In fact, the merchants who stock their dolls recommend the women as mentors to other minority-owned start-ups. Wal-Mart has asked them to do a video about their experience for the company's supplier diversity department. Argilagos-Jimenez, who has consulted with other new companies, says they often get asked how they managed with so little previous experience.

Her answer? "We believed in what we are doing. We recognized that as you get older, people want to go back to their childhood and these dolls do that. The music is universal. It brings back memories.''

In some ways, the growth of the company has been serendipitous. About a year ago, Argilagos-Jimenez was approached by the father of one of her son's football teammates. He had read about the dolls in a national magazine. That conversation led to an investment by JDM Partners, an investment advisory firm run by Dany Garcia and Dwayne "The Rock'' Johnson, the movie star and former University of Miami football player.

"These are the songs I remember my mother and grandmother singing to me,'' says Garcia, who was immediately taken by the dolls. "And it really ties the whole family together. Few toys do that.''

JDM's investment, she adds, will help grow and diversify the Baby Abuelita brand by introducing the video series and working toward an animated television series. But, notes Garcia, "for them this is not just about a monetary drive. They want very much to stay true to their message.''

Salo Grosfeld, the Cuban-America CEO and president of J.R. United Industries, discovered the dolls when his mother bought them for his children. His home furnishings company, based in Northeast Dade, has produced several lines for major retailers and he felt the Baby Abuelita image would be a good fit.

"I called them immediately after seeing the doll and we developed a relationship,'' Grosfeld says. "There's incredible potential. One of the things about Hispanics is that family is a big deal and this really speaks to that.''

Fenster and Argilagos-Jimenez are now shepherding the first Family Fiesta DVD and sponsoring a Sing Abuelita Sing contest through Sept. 30 (Contest rules can be found at www.babyabuelita.com). They expect to introduce Javier, a boy doll, and Elberto, a singing elephant, by next year, as well as a line of infant products. Children's slippers are expected to be on sale in time for the holidays.

"We've had moments where we think, 'Wow!'‚'' says Fenster. "And we've had others where it's just been crazy. But it's a good kind of crazy.''

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