Minority-owned businesses help drive the economy.
by Michael Puente
Northwest Indiana was buried in snow in early February. Schools and businesses were forced to shut down for several days. The situation in Chicago wasn’t much better, with hundreds of motorists stranded on Lakeshore Drive during the 2011 blizzard.
But even as the region went into a deep freeze, Northwest Indiana saw the launch of a new bilingual publication that hopes to heat things up in the coming months. “There was a strong need for this business for Hispanic outreach,” says Lisette Guillen-Gardner, owner of Que Viva, an English and Spanish weekly publication that focuses on Northwest Indiana.
Guillen-Gardner used to operate a similar publication for a daily newspaper in Northwest Indiana, but when it stopped publishing the bilingual newspaper it left the door open for Guillen-Gardner.
“We kind of took the initiative to resurrect the newspaper,” Guillen-Gardner says. She adds that some may have the misconception that such a newspaper would work only in East Chicago, where Hispanics make up more than half the population.
“It’s not just about East Chicago. It’s not just about the Hispanic market. What we’re trying to do is really acclimate the Hispanic community into the rest of the community,” Guillen-Gardner says. “We are Northwest Indiana. We are Indiana. We also just want to make sure that those who do not understand the (Spanish) language, we want to fill them in on what’s going on.”
Guillen-Gardner is an example of the role minority-owned businesses are playing in helping drive the economy out of the recession. In addition to Que Viva, Guillen-Gardner hosts a bilingual radio program on WGVE-FM 88.1 at the Gary Area Career Center in Gary. She also runs a separate public relations and marketing agency.
Even in the down economy, Guillen-Gardner says smaller businesses still need an avenue to reach their Spanish-speaking customers. “It’s the businesses that are allocating dollars just for the Spanish-speaking market,” Guillen-Gardner says. “And now they have somewhere to put those dollars.”
Some may conclude that Guillen-Gardner’s publication, Que Viva, is tapping into a market that is still relatively new to Indiana. Not so. Hispanic-owned businesses have been operating in Indiana for nearly 100 years.
In fact, Northwest Indiana is home to the oldest Hispanic-owned business in Indiana. “What really helps is that we are a third-generation family-owned business. We’re the oldest Mexican family-owned manufacturer in the Midwest, and the governor even recognized us as the oldest in the state,” says Ed Garza, who runs V.F. Garza & Sons, Mexican food products, in East Chicago. “We manufacture authentic Mexican food and we really put a lot of emphasis on quality. What we’ve done is stuck to our game plan of keeping truly great-quality products.”
Garza’s grandfather, Vicente F. Garza, migrated to the United States from the northern Mexico state of Nuevo Leon in 1925. On his journey to the Chicago area, he brought with him authentic Mexican food recipes. Those recipes described ingredients and procedures to make Mexican favorites such as chorizo (a spicy Mexican sausage), mole (a dark, spicy sauce), chocolate and queso (cheese).
Just two years after arriving from Mexico, Vicente founded a manufacturing and distribution company in East Chicago, a small industrial town that began to see an influx of Mexicans. The company thrived and continues to this day, selling its products under the name El Popular. The dozens of products the company sells can be purchased throughout the Midwest.
Vicente’s eldest son, Richard, acquired the business in 1982 and continued the family tradition of producing only all-natural food recipes, free of preservatives, artificial colors and flavors. In 2002, Richard Garza turned over the 75-year-old company to his sons, including Ed Garza.
But the company hasn’t stopped expanding. Although its main offices are in East Chicago in the very building where it first started, the company built a processing plant in Valparaiso in 2003. “The plant allowed us to have more control of the quality of our product and packaging issues. We manufactured in EC years ago and we decided to open up a state-of-the-art facility,” Ed Garza says.
A down economy and more competition hasn’t slowed the company’s success. “What we’re doing is going out there knocking on doors and developing new business instead of being satisfied with what we have. In my eyes, we are ahead of the economy,” Garza says. “As far as I’m concerned, Latinos can run a business just as well as anyone else. We’re your average entrepreneurs.”
One of V.F. Garza’s competitors is just down the street. Established in 1975, O.M. Distributors is family owned, with its main product tortillas, a Mexican staple, under its own label, Tortillas Nuevo Leon.
Oscar and Maria Martinez founded the company with a simple strategy: provide responsive customer service, great products with an authentic Mexican taste and high quality standards of product preparation.
“When my dad started in the business, he worked for a tortilla factory as a distributor. When that company shut down, he decided that if he had done it for so long for someone else, why not be able to make his own?” says Jesus Martinez, a son of Oscar and Maria, who now helps run the company with his brother, Jaime, and sister, Olga.
The company’s specialty products are corn and flour tortillas, Totopo chips, tostadas, chicharrones (pork rinds) and three flavors of Mexican salsas.
With Indiana’s ever-increasing Hispanic population, O.M. has expanded as well. In 2008, the company moved into a new 60,000-square-foot facility and updated its equipment to increase overall productivity to keep up with customer demand.
“We really are keeping up with the market. Every couple of years you have to change equipment and update to what is most modern. We automate and use machines that bring down labor and keep up with demand,” Jesus Martinez says. “Now, we’re expanding out of state and competing with larger companies. We also stay successful by coming up with new products such as the whole wheat tortillas and the chicharrones line.”
Having a larger facility makes for better workflow. “It’s helped us keep everything in one location. You can keep an eye on everything better. We used to have two locations, and now being in one facility gives us room for expansion,” Martinez says. “With a bigger building, we now have room to grow and are able to keep a closer eye on how the business is being run.”
Martinez says because everyone still has to eat, the down economy hasn’t affect the company’s bottom line. “The economy affects different businesses differently. When dealing with food manufacturing, you’re dealing with a business that has an impact on everyone,” Martinez says. “Everyone has to eat, and right now the least expensive food item you can buy is tortillas. You can do lots of things with them, wrap a hot dog up in one or eat it with beans.”
Whether it’s making tortillas or selling tools, Martinez says the pressures of running a business are the same. “There aren’t too many pressures in the aspect of being Hispanic, but there are definitely pressures. Making sure that you’re doing everything the way your parents taught you how is probably the biggest pressure,” Martinez says, “as well as making a quality product and making sure that your customer is happy, because if they aren’t, then how can you expect to have a successful business?”
Supporting and guiding Hispanic-owned business is the mission of the Northwest Indiana Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The volunteer group was founded in 2006 by Debra Bolanos, owner of a small travel agency (Galaxy Travel), with assistance from Dr. Juana Watson, the former senior advisor for Latino and immigrant affairs for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
“I noticed that no one was reaching out to the Hispanic community and small business owners. Having a Hispanic chamber of commerce and having someone who is bilingual to help with small Hispanic business owners helps a lot,” Bolanos says. “One of the things we do is to help them with legal problems or taxes; we refer them to resources and whatever problems are taken care of.”
The chamber has 74 members representing small and large businesses in Lake and Porter counties. Some of its members include Citizens Financial Bank, Centier Bank and First Midwest Bank, Radisson Hotel of Merrillville, McDonald’s Hispanic Owners Association, American Family Insurance and State Farm Insurance.
Some of those firms also advertise on WJOB-AM 1230 in Hammond. The station’s history dates back to 1940, when its call letters were formalized, but its lineage can be traced to 1923.
The station grew in popularity by playing ethnic music, including Polish, Slovak, Greek and Spanish choices. The station also helped to launch the careers of prominent newsmen, including Frank Reynolds and Hugh Hill.
Reynolds served as news anchor at WJOB before moving on to WLS-TV Channel 7 (ABC) in Chicago. He would later serve as national anchor for ABC News. Hill, meanwhile, became a political reporting powerhouse for WLS-TV following his reporting days at WJOB. Felicia Middlebrooks, morning anchor at WBBM-AM 780 in Chicago, also got her start at WJOB.
WJOB became an almost inseparable element of life in the Calumet Region because of its news and local sports coverage, talk shows and severe weather updates. But the station nearly closed its doors eight years ago as financial troubles hit WJOB’s owners hard. The station filed for bankruptcy and feel into receivership.
Not wanting the station to go off the air or be taken over by an out-of-state entity which would air non-local programming, Alexis Vasquez Dedelow took up the challenge in 2004 of buying the station and running it with her husband, Jim Dedelow.
“Jim was involved with WJOB through some of the sports. We wanted the station to stay local and stay talk,” Vasquez Dedelow says. “A couple of bids fell through and the price arrived at something that we could probably come up with and keep it local and do a lot of the local news and sports. That was important to the community.”
Vasquez Dedelow is the principal owner of the station, with Jim serving as morning host, just one of the on-air duties he has at the station. WJOB is just one of a few stations nationwide that’s not only owned by a woman but also Hispanic. The number of AM radio stations owned by Hispanics is barely 7 percent, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC.
Vasquez Dedelow is also a practicing attorney, so managing her practice and running a radio station can be difficult. “I’m on the air early in the morning with Jim and I try to do the work around my court schedule. I do a lot of things for the station on the weekends and in the evenings,” Vasquez Dedelow said. “I like to think the station is 24/7. The law office is 9 to 5.”
Vasquez Dedelow grew up in East Chicago in a family of seven, where her father worked in the mill for most of his life, and her mother worked at home. Vasquez Dedelow said she never envisioned herself becoming a radio personality and station owner, or even an attorney. Balancing her two careers and her own family, with three children, can be difficult but it’s something she enjoys.
But providing news, information, local sports and discussion for WJOB’s listeners on the air and over the Internet is paramount to Vasquez Dedelow. “Northwest Indiana tends to get lumped into a lot of the Chicago media and news. The only time you hear about this area is when something negative happens here,” Vasquez Dedelow says. “I like focusing and putting a spotlight on all the positive things and people that are happening here. That’s important to me.”