Business Monday

El Sembrador sells yuca, and more, in 31 states

Luis Hernandez is the president of El Sembrador, a family-owned company that processes and distributes frozen, dried and canned foods in Florida and other states for Hispanic communities.
Luis Hernandez is the president of El Sembrador, a family-owned company that processes and distributes frozen, dried and canned foods in Florida and other states for Hispanic communities. mocner@miamiherald.com

The company: Miami-based L&J General International Corp., which does business as El Sembrador (“The Planter” in Spanish), produces and sells a wide range of processed foods — from yuca and beans to frozen guava pulp and tostones — with packaging in English and Spanish.

Hispanics are El Sembrador’s main customers and its chief market is Florida, which accounts for about 65 percent of sales. But its products are now sold in 30 other states and are reaching beyond Hispanic buyers.

“When we started in 1989, we began selling containers of frozen yuca, which is very popular, and then expanded into tropical fruit pulp,” said Luis Hernandez, El Sembrador’s president, who founded the family-owned company with his father, Luis Hernandez Sr.

Yuca is El Sembrador’s biggest seller, and it is imported frozen from Costa Rica. About 90 percent of El Sembrador’s produce is grown and processed in Latin America by company suppliers and partners, and shipped frozen to Miami. It also buys beans from U.S. farmers and cheese from Europe. The company says it is the largest importer of yuca in the United States.

Products: El Sembrador sells frozen, canned and packaged foods under its brand. Its most popular line is frozen yuca, followed by frozen tropical fruit pulp (papaya, mango, passion fruit, and more), frozen vegetables, snacks, and side dishes, as well as dry and canned beans, marinades and dairy products.

The company has more than 400 individual products (SKUs) and sells more than 300 others for outside manufacturers. Other L&J brands sold alongside El Sembrador are El Sembradore (pasta and sauces) and El Pesquero (“The Fisherman”), frozen seafood.

Getting started: Using their modest savings, Luis Hernandez and his father, Luis Hernandez Sr., both immigrants from Cuba, combined their experience and contacts in Miami to start El Sembrador 27 years ago. Luis Sr., with years of experience in produce and food retailing, and his son, a chemical engineer, imported a shipment of frozen yuca, stored it in the corner of a leased refrigerated warehouse and began selling it to local food stores. They expanded into importing frozen tropical fruit pulp, and were able to grow rapidly after Sedano’s, the largest Hispanic-owned supermarket chain in the U.S., began stocking their products.

The difference: El Sembrador prides itself on superior customer service. “It’s not just the salespeople who come to our stores,” said Ariel Martínez, Florida district manager for Presidente Supermarkets. “The owners also visit all the stores — they’re everywhere. El Sembrador pays close attention to how its products are doing and keep on top of their business.”

Sales: The company says its dollar sales have been growing steadily at 12 per cent per annum in recent years, even during the recession. “When money is tight, people eat more at home,” Hernandez said. He expects very strong growth throughout 2016.

Competitors: El Sembrador competes directly with large companies like Goya Foods, Iberia and La Fe. There is also competition in some product lines with Badia Spices (oils, marinades, seasonings), Conchita (beans), Bush’s (canned beans), Heinz (vinegar) and others.

Analyst: Geoscape, a Miami-based market intelligence and consulting firm, sees strong growth potential for a company like El Sembrador in the burgeoning U.S. Latino population and its demographics.

“Hispanic households represent a greater lifetime value than white, non-Hispanic households, due partially to younger life stages and larger family sizes, according to our latest analysis of multicultural buying habits and population growth,” said César Melgoza, CEO and founder of Geoscape, in response to emailed questions. “This is true for a wide variety of brands across industries, but especially true at the grocery store.”

The Geoscape CEO also said that while the market for frozen fruit — one of El Sembrador’s main product lines — is overdeveloped in the Southeast, it is underdeveloped among Hispanic households, especially in the South and West. “This is a category that likely can look forward to growth, once the messaging is disseminated that juice from frozen fruit pulp can be as, or more delicious and nutritious than those that are bottled or canned.”

The U.S. Census Bureau said that the population of Hispanics in the U.S. was about 55.4 million in 2014, or 17.4 percent of the total population. Nielsen estimated the total purchasing power of Hispanics in 2015 at $1.5 trillion, up 50 percent from 2010.

What customers say: Lourdes Solís, an ultrasound technician who was born in Peru, regularly buys El Sembrador frozen fruit, beans, peas and other products at Sedano’s and Bravo supermarkets near where she and her family live in Pembroke Pines. “They [El Sembrador] have the products I need, and they offer good quality and good prices,” Solís said.

Sedano’s and Presidente Supermarkets, two important supermarket chains serving Hispanic and broader communities, carry El Sembrador’s product lines and have been buying from the company for more than two decades.

“All of El Sembrador’s products sell extremely well, but especially their frozen food line — which is how they originally came to market,” said José Herrán Jr., Sedano’s COO. “The key to their success is their quality and consistency at a fair price, plus excellent customer service,” Herrán said.

“They compete extremely well with Goya and La Fe in general, but when it comes to frozen food, they are the leader in the category.” Sedano’s began purchasing from El Sembrador when the food processing company opened in 1989.

At Presidente stores, “El Sembrador products are No. 1 in sales among Latinos and other groups,” Martínez said. “We sell all of their products and they are carrying over to the general market, as well as to African-American and Asian buyers. Customers like the quality of their products and the price is very competitive.”

Challenges and outlook: Demand for El Sembrador products continues to expand in Latino and other communities. “We invested about $1 million last year in new refrigerated storage space at our headquarters, and we need additional space to expand,” Hernandez said. “We’re developing new products and are moving into new territories.”

The writer can be reached at josephmannjr@gmail.com.

El Sembrador

Business: El Sembrador, Spanish for The Planter, is the chief brand of Miami-based L&J General International Corp., which processes and distributes food products to large supermarket chains and small grocery stores in Florida and 30 other states. El Sembrador sells more than 400 types of frozen, canned and packaged food products.

Headquarters: 2424 NW 46th St., Brownsville.

Founded: in Miami in 1989.

President: Luis A. Hernandez.

Employees: 93.

Customers: Supermarket chains (Sedano’s, Presidente, Publix, Walmart), community food markets and institutional clients.

Ownership: Owned and operated by the Hernandez family.

Website: www.elsembrador.com

Source: El Sembrador

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