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M&M helps retailers with tropical mix

Manuel Hevia Jr. and Mark Vertrees

To the uninformed, the Hispanic market might seem like one homogenous group ripe for the tapping. But at M&M Farm Inc. in Miami, which specializes in the growing, sourcing, distribution and sales of tropical items, the staff knows that the Hispanic market is actually made up of many different groups, and each needs to be treated separately. Mark Vertrees, marketing manager for the firm, said when marketing to Hispanics it is very important to know what country or region they are from and to create a special list of products for each demographic. “For example, there are 100 different varieties of malanga,” he said. “Each is a tropical potato, but Cubans eat a different variety than Puerto Ricans and they eat a different variety than Mexicans.”

Mr. Vertrees said that M&M considers it is the company’s job to help retailers create the right tropical mix for each of their stores. “They know the ethnic makeup of their stores and we know the right mix for each group.”

He said that when marketing tropical items “no one size fits all.” Each demographic is different and retailers risk losing sales if they do not cater specifically to that group in their neighborhood. “You can bet the small bodega in the area is catering to that customer. Like anyone else, the Hispanic customers will shop where they feel comfortable. If you have items that they want to buy, they’ll shop your store.”

Target marketing, he added, is the key to success. Mr. Vertrees likened the concept to a high-end jeweler who will only be successful in the right neighborhood.

Manuel Hevia Jr., co-owner of M&M, said it is all a matter of education — on two levels. Retailers need to be educated as to the desires of the specific ethnic groups in their region, and, of course, M&M and other tropical produce providers want to grow the category by educating non-traditional users of the benefits of these products. Many items, such as the mango, the avocado and the coconut, have already gone mainstream, but there are many other products on the cusp that could move in that direction.

M&M Farm is a family business that formed when it partnered with Valdes Farms to be the packers, sales agent and distributors of Valdes Farms’ products in 1992 after that company was devastated by Hurricane Andrew. Valdes Farms started in 1967 as a south Florida grower of tropical roots and remains a large growing arm of M&M today in Central America and South America.

Manolo Hevia Sr. started with Valdes Farms in 1975 and eventually acquired the company after Hurricane Andrew. He and his son, Manny Hevia Jr., changed the name to M&M Farm Inc. and rebuilt the company into a leader in tropicals.

M&M grows much of its own produce with more than 700 acres in south Florida. The boniato, a type of sweet potato, is the company’s specialty. Commonly referred to as a Cuban sweet potato, the boniato is tropical in origin and looks like a yam. The product is cooked as a potato and used in that manner by Cubans in many different recipes that include mashing it, boiling it, baking it or frying it.

With more than two million people of Cuban descent in Florida, Mr. Vertrees said that the boniato has a clearly defined target market. He said the major retailers in Florida are very familiar with the product and it is a staple in many stores around the state.

The large Florida avocado is another big item for M&M. Mr. Vertrees said it is very popular in the Southeast and its growth has mirrored the explosion in avocado sales that has taken place all over the country. He said consumers in the Southeast like the large avocado because of its size and health benefits, as it contains fewer calories than the Hass.