Food & Drink

This Independence Day, the caja china can help make the ultimate barbecue

The caja china is a staple of many Cuban celebrations. The best part of the business is the happiness it brings, says Masters, president and founder of Latin Touch.
The caja china is a staple of many Cuban celebrations. The best part of the business is the happiness it brings, says Masters, president and founder of Latin Touch.

▪ ▪ While on the presidential campaign trail last December, Sen. Marco Rubio roused the West Miami crowd by yelling, “¡Vamos a llevar una caja china a la Casa Blanca!

Rubio promised, if elected, to bring a Chinese Box, otherwise known as a Cuban pork roaster, to the White House. Although Rubio ultimately dropped out of the race three months later, his speech heartened Mat Masters at Latin Touch because it gave the caja china a national audience. As president and founder of Latin Touch, Masters has been selling various incarnations of the caja china in the Miami area since 2009.

The roasters resemble similar models used by Chinese laborers who came to Cuba to help build the railroad in the 1800s. Masters says the actual name “caja china” also pays homage to the mystery of the Chinese puzzle box. Today the caja china is a staple of many Cuban celebrations and is now going mainstream, Masters says, pointing out that celebrity chefs such as Bobby Flay and Andrew Zimmern rave about how the roasters crisp the pig’s skin while leaving the meat moist. Even Martha Stewart was in hog heaven when sampling the succulent pig that she had roasted during her first annual grilling special in 2012.

Masters’ major competitor, Roberto Guerra of the Hialeah-based La Caja China, assisted the entertainment maven. Guerra, who has been making and selling china boxes since the 1980s, also collaborates with Latin Touch, which even sells several models of roasters manufactured by La Caja China. Masters sells four sizes and seven models ranging in price from $259.99 to $1,325. In addition, he supplies smokers, spices, cookbooks, insulated barbecue mitts, domino tables and espresso makers. On occasion Masters also caters events, such as the annual New Year’s Eve celebration at Bird Bowl Bowling Center, the 60-lane bowling alley on Bird Road in Miami. He also has worked on special events with Jack Daniels, Guinness and Bacardi Rum.

“The customers that they are trying to reach are the same customers that we currently have,” Masters says. “So, they see it as a strategic partnership, and we obviously do as well.”

In South Florida, many Hispanic families, especially Cuban and Puerto Rican ones, enjoy roasted pig or lechón asado as part of a traditional feast for Nochebuena. In 1987, a South Florida company started selling a product called La Caja China, a r

Latin Touch clients speak well of the customer service and Masters in general. Carl Blake, a Missouri pig farmer who is known as the Little Pig Man on National Geographic’s reality TV show, notes how Masters responds quickly and resolves issues, sometimes resupplying parts overnight. “Mat’s been very helpful from day one,” Blake told the Miami Herald. “He’s got a passion for it, too. So, I think that’s great. His box — I bought four of them.”

The best part of the business is the happiness it brings, Masters says. “People are always calling us because they are about to celebrate something,” he says. “It’s always a big anniversary. It’s my son’s graduation. It’s 25 years together. It’s Christmas. It’s the holidays, or the Fourth of July.”

This Independence Day, the caja china can help make the ultimate barbecue. While the pig is roasting in its box, under a tray of hot coals, those with a fondness for grills can cook anything from hot dogs and hamburgers to steak and teriyaki tuna on racks placed above the coals.

This ability to roast and grill at the same time is a bonus because, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, the Fourth of July is the most popular grilling day of the year. Seventy-six percent of grill owners fire up the grill on that day. That’s followed by Labor Day and Memorial Day, where 62 percent of grill owners use their grills. Father’s Day has 49 percent and Mother’s Day 34 percent.

Masters, whose mother was born in Havana, typically hews to the traditional Cuban pig roasts, which call for a mojo criollo marinade of sour orange juice, pineapple juice, garlic and a variety of herbs and spices. But, he’s going all-American this Independence Day. He plans to create a taste as American as apple pie by literally using apples, brown sugar, molasses, apple cider vinegar and cloves. “You brine it up for a couple of days, and you just give it a nice slow cook,” he says. “It’s amazing. A lot of folks here are not familiar with those flavors. So, it’s always very popular. It’s got a sweet taste to it, where down here they are used to more of a tang.”

The logo for Latin Touch uses the warm colors of the sun and features a sunrise. It serves as a metaphor for his life, Masters says. “I came out of a very difficult place and I felt like it was a new day starting and this business was my vehicle to give myself something to be prideful of and to put my time and effort into, that would allow me to put everything in my past, in my past.”

When Masters was 18, his father died, and that unmoored him.

“I went through a slow descent into alcohol and drug abuse,” he says. “I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had multiple different jobs. I just kind of was lost. I got close to having an overdose and it kind of snapped me into reality. I was 27 years old at the time and right there I realized when I was in the hospital that how much I was taking for granted my health.”

He was also emotionally flat-lining. “And what I would be willing to give — which was basically anything — just to feel normal again?” he says, recalling his disconnect with the world. “I was looking at the nurses and the people at the desk — look at them laughing and they’re talking to each other. I don’t remember what that’s like. I feel so feeble and weak right now, and so fragile, and I kind of decided at that point I was never going to let myself get back into that place again. So, that’s what I did. I never even had a thought or a concern about that happening again. That’s 10 years ago.”

When he recovered, he went to college and began paying for his living expenses by buying items at close-out sales and reselling items on the internet. Then he developed the concept of specialized sales.

“The business was supposed to be originally an online market place for products that are popular in the Hispanic community that are not readily available in other parts of the country, that we have access to down here,” he says. “What I saw at the time was that the online market was growing exponentially and I saw the Hispanic market was growing very, very rapidly. I said, oh, those are good things. How can I put these two things together?”

In its infancy, Masters first called the company the “Frugal Household” because he was selling cookware found in Latin American homes at reduced prices. He admits to not understanding his market, especially the other available suppliers.

“I did very, very poorly,” he says, laughing. “I don’t think competing with Walmart is my best move here. Maybe I should stop doing that.” Luckily, he had not incorporated the company. He decided to abandon that concept in favor of selling all things related to the caja china. He also renamed the company Latin Touch.

Today he sells more than a thousand roasters a year, with annual revenues topping more than $2 million. His is a true American success story, which celebrates both his success in turning his life around and helps others celebrate our nation’s birth.

Fast facts on grilling

According to a survey conducted last December by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association of Arlington, Virginia, grilling is growing in the United States:

▪ Three out of four U.S. adults own a grill or smoker.

▪ More than a third (37 percent) of U.S. adults surveyed plan to purchase a new grill or smoker in 2016.

▪ Nearly half of those who already own a grill (45 percent) plan to purchase a new grill or smoker in 2016.

▪ Wood pellet grill ownership appears to be rising, up from 2 percent market share in 2015 to 7 percent in 2016.

Most popular days to fire up the grill:

▪ Fourth of July (76 percent of grill owners grill on this day)

▪ Labor Day (62 percent)

▪ Memorial Day (62 percent)

▪ Father’s Day (49 percent)

▪ Mother’s Day (34 percent)

2015 State of the Barbecue Industry Report

Latin Touch Inc.

Founded: 2009.

Executives: Mat Masters, president; and Chris Sanchez, manager.

Employees: Three.

Most popular model of product: La Caja China Roasters (The Diamond Cut series).

Price: $259.99 to $1,325.

Annual revenues: $2 million +

Market: The company’s core market is in the United States, with the highest sales in Florida, Texas, California and New York. Other markets include Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey (which has a big Cuban population), Connecticut and even Alaska. Overseas sales include Australia, the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos. As Latin Touch expands, it expects to broaden its market abroad.

Location: 14205 SW 139th Ct., southwest Miami-Dade. Latin Touch is in a 2,000-square-foot cinder block warehouse near Miami Executive Airport. It may relocate to a facility three times that size because a third-party warehouse that is holding much of the company’s inventory plans to downsize in the near future.

Features: Although Latin Touch caters traditional Cuban pig roasts, the main source of revenue comes from the sale of specialty grills and big rotisserie spits designed for whole animals. The company carries a number of smokers for barbecuing and sells housewares and cookware that are popular in Latin America, as well as domino tables and Cuban coffee makers.

Contact: 888-272-7629; www.shoplatintouch.com

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