Ethnic Marketing? Turning Obstacles into Opportunities

In the past, appealing to minorities was not a major concern to marketers in most industries.  Ethnic groups in America were expected to assimilate into the mainstream over time, making it a case of Mohammed coming to the mountain.

But time has proven this reasoning faulty.  As a result of many economic and social factors, people are beginning to discover that America is no longer the melting pot it once was.  Instead of looking to assimilate, certain ethnic groups such as African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics have fought to maintain their own cultural integrity.

“The most recent census made it clear that the United States is fast becoming more ethnically diverse,” says Wendy Liebmann, principal of WSL Marketing, a New York-based consultancy.  “The melting pot concept that has typified American society for the last century is rapidly being displaced by a multiethnic mosaic.”

The Numbers Are Growing

In addition to staying culturally viable, ethnic populations have also greatly increased in number, and are large enough to whet any marketer’s appetite.  Taken as a whole, people of African, Asian, Hispanic and American Indian descent now make up one-fourth of the U.S. population. That figure is expected to rise to one-third sometime after the year 2000. And in California and Texas, it is projected that whites will be in the minority by 2010.

The U.S. Hispanic population is already equal to that of Canada at 25 million.  And it’s projected to surge well into the 21st century, surpassing American blacks by the year 2010 with 40.5 million people.

African-Americans, now numbering 32 million, are expected to reach 40.2 million by 2010, while the Asian-American population (the nation’s fastest-growing minority group, roughly doubling in size every 10 years) is projected to increase from 8.8 million to 12 million.

And, albeit slowly, these ethnic groups are also growing in affluence, with African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians currently representing an estimated $600 billion in annual buying power.

Information from the 1990 census reveals that the median family in- come for African-Americans is $21,000, compared with $30,000 for whites. (Census figures also show that blacks represent a disproportionate share of the 18 to 35 age group which, according to demographic experts, contains the biggest spenders.)

The median family income for Hispanics now stands at $23,000, with one out of every $20 spent in America coming from this market.   More than 45 percent of the Asian segment, the most affluent, earns between $25,000 and $74,000.

Learning from the Big Guys

Corporate America has already recognized that minority consumers have become a force in their own right.  Marketing expenditures directed at ethnic groups currently exceed $500 million per year, and are projected to approach $900 million by the year 2000.

And giants such as Colgate-Palmolive, Wal-Mart, Polaroid and Chrysler – whose lessons can be applied by small businesses seeking to enter this lucrative market – have learned that they need to go wider and deeper with their efforts in order to penetrate it.

As discussed at a recent conference sponsored by The Marketing Institute, a division of the Institute for International Research, one- hot promotions tied to Cinco de Mayo or the Chinese New Year aren’t considered a serious approach any longer.  To be successful, speakers aid, ethnic marketing should be part of a year-round campaign and must e sensitive to the diversity of target cultures.

“Ethnic marketing, minority marketing – what do they all have in common?  Marketing.  It requires a long-term commitment, but it’s worth he investment,” emphasizes Gary Berman, president of Market Segment research in Miami.

Examples in the Retail Arena

Examples abound in the retail arena of major players targeting previously overlooked niches whose spending power can no longer be ignored.  They have come to view cultural differences as opportunities, not obstacles.

Carnival Cruise Lines has dedicated an entire cruise ship called the Fiesta Marina to the Hispanic market.

J.C. Penney became the first national department store chain to cater to black and Hispanic customers on a broad basis by offering merchandise such as linens with bold African prints and cosmetics for women of color. As one retail expert explained, “J.C. Penney is telling its minority customers, ‘We recognize you and your patronage, and we’re willing to stock merchandise in which only you may be interested.”

Montgomery Ward (which now offers credit applications in Spanish) and Sears subsequently adopted similar strategies.  According to a spokesperson for Montgomery Ward, “Spurred by market research, what we’re doing is adjusting recommendations to reflect customer preferences.  It really represents expanded choices, and the merchandise is selling very well.”

Sears is also responding to the demand in Asian communities for a broader selection of smaller sizes in all apparel categories.  In addition, the retailer debuted a pantyhose line with a variety of shades and sheer textures to complement a black woman’s skin color and accommodate her figure.  Said a company spokesperson, “Black women tend to have fuller hips and slimmer ankles, characteristics not addressed by typical hosiery lines.”

Spanish-speaking television stations have been inundated with ads from old-line companies such as McDonald’s (which issued a “Mac Report” series of Spanish informercials) and AT&T (which now offers telephone calling plans targeting Mexico). As another example, Sara Lee plans to continue aggressively marketing its Hanes brand through Spanish-language cable TV and radio in Chicago and Miami.  “Over the next several years, we’ll be making an even stronger effort in minority marketing,” explains Carrie O’Sullivan, marketing manager.

Proctor & Gamble rolled out an ad-supported line extension of Cover Girl cosmetics for black women, and has also begun airing spots aimed at blacks for Crest toothpaste, Tide detergent and Downy fabric softener.

General Mills became the first cereal company to introduce a product specifically for Hispanic consumers.  Called Bunuelitos after a sweet Mexican pastry, it was designed to appeal to this niche’s propensity to buy presweetened cereals.  “What the general market may consider a children’s brand is eaten by the whole Hispanic household,” comments David Wright, assistant marketing manager – special markets.  “We felt we could take the lead on this.”

While black Barbie dolls once looked exactly like white Barbies with the exception of their skin tone, New York-based Olmec Corp. – moving to stem a loss of business – recently came out with a Barbie-type doll with black features called Imani.

Following the example of other trend setters in the industry, Food 4 Less Supermarkets Inc. opened Latin-oriented Viva Markets in Los Angeles, while Lucky Stores has increased its selection of Mexican foods. Spanish-language billboards for Lucky stores also dot Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles County.

The Importance of Language

What Lucky and other savvy marketers realize is the importance of using a target audience’s own language in their selling efforts.  Statistics alone back this up:  Of America’s 250 million consumers, more than 32 million speak languages other than English at home. (Of these, at least 17 million speak Spanish.)

John MacDonough, president and chief operating officer of Miller Brewing Co., explained at a recent industry conference that the nation’s Hispanic population is “a cultural phenomena built around language.”  And, while 40 to 45 percent is bilingual, “The desire to learn English does not mean a desire to lose Spanish.  It is not ‘either/or’ for Latinos.  It is ‘both/and.’ Spanish remains the language in which they discover and explore the world,” MacDonough emphasizes.  “It is the language in which they dream.”

Bill Imada, president of Los Angeles-based Imada Wong Communications Group, concurs that with Asian-Americans, “In-language promotions work best.  Non-acclimated consumers in particular are always impressed when displays, coupons and collateral materials are presented in their native languages.”

Both MacDonough and Imada warn against promotional efforts that take traditional general market advertising or point-of-sale materials and translate them verbatim.  “When you do that you are not talking to your audience, you’re talking down to them,” says MacDonough.  “That’s not advertising, that’s patronizing.  It’s like ad-libbing an English movie and putting bylines in Spanish.”

Jennie Tong, chief executive officer of Lee Liu & Tong Advertising Inc. in New York, takes this warning a step further.  “If you’re going to run native language advertising, you cannot be too careful about its creation,” she says emphatically.  “You can’t just translate an ad, you have to ‘transcreate’ it.  To do a good job, you need someone who has an excellent grasp of English and understands the ad message.  That same person has to have a thorough understanding of the culture of the native country involved, and a native knowledge of the other language.”

Consider Cultural Nuances

Imada cites three instances where well-conceived promotions fell flat because key ideas got lost in translation.  In one instance, a marketer issued native-language coupons to Americans of Chinese descent that offered $24 discounts with each purchase.  The promotion went awry because the number “2” in some Chinese communities is close to the word for “easy,” while the number “4” is close to the word “death.”  “Needless to say, ‘easy death’ coupons were not well received,” Imada comments.

On another occasion, a marketer offered green baseball caps as premiums during a Chinese New Year presentation.  “Among older generations, a man who wears a green cap is saying that his wife is cheating on him and he’s trying to bring public scorn on her,” notes Imada.

Finally, a Thai translation of the slogan “Come Alive, You’re in the Pepsi Generation” read, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.”

On the other hand, Imada points out, a subtle shift can pay off.  A jewelry company that had targeted special offers on diamond wristwatches to soon-to-be-wed Korean men saw a dramatic improvement in sales after redirecting its promotional efforts to mothers of the bride – who traditionally present such gifts to future sons-in-law.

“It’s important to make a good first impression,” says Imada.  “Asian consumers are more critical and less forgiving than general market consumers.  It’s also important to know your audience and evaluate promotional efforts with an eye toward ensuring cultural sensitivity and relevance.”

Eleanor Yu, president of Adland in San Francisco, concurs on the importance of understanding cultural nuances.  “What makes an ad work is readers or viewers identifying themselves in it,” she comments.  “If, for example, a beer ad shows two young Caucasian men in a bar, few Asian-Americans would pay attention to it.  But if the two men were Chinese, then the chances for identification might be a bit better.  If, however, the two Asian men were drinking beer with their brothers at a picnic, that’s a more familiar situation because of the Asian emphasis on family.  Perhaps 80 percent of a Chinese audience would remember that ad.”

Language and Culture Help Vie for Consumer Dollars

Appreciating the role language and cultural terms can play in attracting consumer dollars, Hallmark now makes cards in Spanish and Japanese, while Bank of America has automated teller machines with instructions in Spanish, as well as Spanish-language brochures to support its marketing efforts to Hispanic consumers.  Questar Bank’s telephone banking system is programmed in Spanish, English and Korean.  Peoples Bank of Connecticut sells low-interest credit cards on Spanish-speaking television, and First Consumer National Bank has a “mirror image” Spanish bank with its own MasterCard “Adelante.”

AT&T runs broadcast and print ads that reach 30 different cultures in 20 different languages, while MCI and Sprint also advertise in a variety of Asian dialects.  Says AT&T Director of Multicultural Marketing Jacqueline Morey, “Marketing today is part anthropology.”

And many stores vying for Hispanic dollars have Spanish-speaking salesclerks.  At the Montgomery Ward in San Bernardino, store manager Dick Thompson comments, “The reaction here is good.”  Adds a customer, “I’m for it.  It’s to the benefit of the people, and indicates that somebody cares.”

Kmart has gone even further, including satellite-beamed programmed music and announcements in both Spanish and English as part of a chain-wide marketing effort to target Latino customers.  The music varies from region to region, and announcements change daily to reflect advertised specials.  Reports the manager of the Kmart store in Coachella, California, “Hispanic shoppers are pleased to have some music they can relate to.”

Conversely, Dr. John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, tells the story of a store in the middle of a Spanish neighborhood that only had one sign in Spanish.  “It read, ‘The safe cannot be opened,'” he recounts.  “You say to yourself, why would an Hispanic person come into that store?  That’s blatant disrespect.”

Choosing the Right Advertising Medium

The medium can be just as important as the message when targeting ethnic segments, advise marketing experts, who strongly suggest using foreign-language newspapers, radio and television stations.

Sacramento, California-based Costanza and Associates Inc., for example, which helps companies develop long-term strategies to tap into the Hispanic market, broadcasts its messages through Spanish-language media.  “Because of the Hispanic community’s loyalty to its language and culture, these are the most effective,” says owner Lou Costanza.  “The main mistake companies make is thinking that they can reach Hispanics through mainstream media.”

The same applies to the Asian-American community, where more than half are more comfortable speaking their own language, according to Market Segment Research.  English is not spoken at all by 35 percent of the population, and another 24 percent primarily use their native language.  Half prefer television and radio programming in their own language, and 56.2 percent of those surveyed said advertising in their own language would make them more inclined to buy a product.

“In tailoring ads for ethnic segments, make sure efforts extend across the board through all forms of media,” advises Caroline Jones, president of New York-based Caroline Jones Advertising.  “I’ve known companies to integrate several ethnicities in TV ads, but their direct mail efforts are entirely white.  Avoid this, or your customers will avoid you.”

Adds marketing and research consultant Mariangel Rodriguez, vice president of specialty markets for M/A/R/C Inc. in Dallas, “When marketing to minorities, because making a cultural link is crucial, ask foreign-language newspapers, radio and TV stations to help with both the message and the language.  And consider small advertising or marketing groups that specialize in minority marketing.  They will be able to keep tabs on not only the language used, but the customs and traditions with which you might not be familiar.

“Research efforts, including focus groups and one-on-one interviews, can be customized for small businesses at a reasonable cost,” Rodriguez notes.  “What’s important to know is what made your product or service appeal to any existing ethnic customers, how they were introduced to it, and what moved them to make the purchase.”

Another option for small business owners is to treat their store as a research site.  Surveying customers is a simple form of research, and the customer’s word is often the most valid data available, particularly when trying to understand subtle cultural distinctions.

Appreciating Diversity within Market Segments

Market Segment Research recently conducted a study on the country’s three largest ethnic groups using thousands of personal and telephone interviews. Gary Berman, the consultancy’s president, warns against viewing any of the groups as homogeneous.  Their purchasing habits, he says, differ by country of origin, length of U.S. residency, linguistic adaptation, and socioeconomic status.

“One of the most interesting findings was that within the three major groups, there was a tremendous amount of diversity,” Berman comments.  “We as marketers tend to broadly group Hispanic, African-American and Asian.  In the future, we might have to take a closer look at the diversity within these segments to develop strategies.”

For example, within the Hispanic market, the four major subgroups are Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and “Other Hispanic” – a category that primarily includes Spanish-speaking people from Central and South America, the Caribbean and Spain.

In terms of the Asian community, David T. Chen, a managing partner with Los Angeles-based Muse Cordero Chen, concurs that “it’s a diverse segment which tends to get a little intimidating.”  There are more than two dozen ethnic groups, each with a distinctive language, religion, culture and value system.  Chinese make up 22 percent of the total, Filipino 19 percent, Japanese and Indians 11 percent each.  The rest consist of Korean, Vietnamese and others.

According to Chen, “the best approach, after wading through the various subcultures and languages, is to seek and focus on commonalities.  The groups tend to be conservative, but are information-hungry and curious about American mainstream society.  Loyalty, education and respect for law and order are some core Confucian beliefs; family and status are valued achievements.

“Most Asians resent aggressive sales approaches,” continues Chen, “and will only buy from someone who has built and nurtured a relationship, of which trust is a critical component.  Asian-Americans do business with people, not with product attributes.”

For this reason, and the logic applies across all ethnic segments, it’s a wise idea to have staff members who speak the language of the ethnic group or groups you are targeting.  Also make sure signs and fliers printed in the appropriate languages are prominently displayed in your establishment.  These simple and logical cultural sensitivities are appreciated, and can help spread positive word of mouth.

Marketing Will Always Be Marketing

Underlying all these points is the fact that marketing will always be marketing.  The bottom line to success – whatever an entrepreneur’s target group or groups – is thoroughly knowing these customers and their specific needs.  It’s also important to be patient, for long-term goals have to be approached with long-term strategies.  It will take time and a steady stream of communication to establish – and strengthen – new business relationships.  But the effort is bound to pay off, as those once considered the “minority” assert their increasing economic clout.

“It’s absolutely a matter of money and profitability,” sums up Larry Gresham, marketing professor with Texas A&M’s Center for Retailing Studies. “Unless you’ve been asleep at the wheel, you know the real growth is in minority markets.”

Hispanic Market Segment Is Anything But Homogeneous

“The Hispanic segment is far from homogeneous and, in fact, includes 21 different groups.  Those who do not take into account the various backgrounds and cultural nuances in their marketing efforts are making a big mistake.”

So counsels Edwin Jorge, president of New York-based Paloma Promotions & Advertising, a subsidiary of El Diario la Prensa.  The daily newspaper, founded in 1913 with a current readership of 250,000, is the largest-circulation Spanish-language daily newspaper east of the Mississippi, and the second largest nationwide.

“For a long time, companies would simply take their general market ad, voice it over, and play it on Spanish television stations.  But it’s no longer a matter of a simple translation and there you go,” he elaborates.  “From an editorial standpoint, for example, we have more than 50 reporters here at El Diario, all of whom bring news from their own countries.  And, while we try to write in Spanish that is universal, three to four people (each representing a different cultural group) read the articles to make sure we are not offending anyone.  We have to be careful in what we say.”

Jorge uses a graphic example.  “Although Latin Americans (except for those in Portuguese-speaking Brazil) ostensibly all speak Spanish, because of colloquialisms and other nuances, they are very different at times.  For instance, for Mexicans, to chat is `platicar;’ for Venezuelans, it is `conversar;’ and for Argentineans, it is `charlar.'”

And American companies have made some major gaffes in not taking into account the linguistic nuances of Hispanic markets they are trying to target.  “In a classic case, General Motors decided to introduce its Nova automobile into Mexico,” Jorge recounts.  “While the car did well in the U.S., it didn’t sell in Mexico.  And the reason?  The phrase `no va’ in Spanish means `doesn’t go’ – hardly a persuasive description for an automobile.

“The Hispanic segment in this country is growing four or five times faster than the general population,” continues Jorge.  “In New York City alone, 3.1 million Hispanics represent 25 percent of the population.  Of these, one million are Puerto Rican and 900,000 are of Dominican Republic descent.

“And, after taxes, rent and mortgages are deducted,” he claims, “New York’s Hispanics have $26 billion in expendable income annually.  Savvy marketers simply cannot ignore the growing economic clout of this vast segment, and have to tailor their messages accordingly.”

Jorge is a strong proponent of building relationships with the community in this regard, and cites a recent effort his company undertook.  “We were approached by a councilman who wanted donations for an armory located in Washington Heights, a huge ghetto in the heart of the Dominican area.  I told him we could do much better, and proposed holding a yearly event that would focus on this hardworking community.”

With NYNEX as the major sponsor, El Diario put together a one-day track and field meet that attracted 110 schools and 5,000 attendees (3,000 athletes and 2,000 spectators).  “This was a first in the history of the city,” he says proudly.  “Two $2,000 donations were given to local high schools to promote track and field, as well as a donation to the high school foundation that runs the armory.  Trophies were awarded, and NYNEX gave out T-shirts, cups and even a water bottle to each participating team member.  It was a very festive day.”

Jorge credits NYNEX for the role it played.  “A good marketer knows where the future of this city lies, and works now to build relationships with the key communities in it.”

Kmart, Vons and Spiegel Tap into Fast-Growing Ethnic Niches

Kmart has introduced ethnically oriented toys, books, clothing, artwork, crafts, linen, bedding, rugs, music, health and beauty aids in stores across the country.  “Kmart has made targeting ethnic customers – including African-Americans, Hispanics and the growing Asian-Pacific population – a major commitment,” says Bruce Michelotti, a buyer for the mass merchandiser.  Determining the merchandising mix takes into consideration the differences in customer taste, fashion and style, as well as regional variations.  “All these various groups have distinctly different languages and cultural traditions,” he explains.

One particularly successful example of Kmart’s ethnic marketing efforts has been the development of authentic African-American apparel and jewelry reflecting styles and designs worn in West Africa.  Response to the products, including dresses, hats and caftans, “was overwhelming,” says Michelotti.

Tianguis Attracts Latino Customers

Combining the polish of a modern supermarket with the atmosphere of a swap meet, Tianguis was among the industry’s most ambitious efforts to attract Latino consumers when the eight stores were opened by Vons Cos. in Los Angeles in the late 1980s.

Instead of simply adjusting its food selection to fit neighborhood tastes, Vons formed a partnership with a Mexican company to import native foods and groceries, and assembled a variety of businesses (such as butcher shops, bakeries and small tortilla factories) under one roof to offer consumers one-stop shopping.  On weekends, mariachi bands play outside the stores and vendors sell fresh tamales.

“They were really booming,” said a competitor at the time the specialty markets were first introduced.  “People came from miles away to shop at those stores.”

Spiegel Launches E Style Catalogues

Also in an effort to lure black female buyers, Spiegel launched E Style catalogues of women’s clothing geared towards readers of Ebony magazine.  Almost two years in the making, the catalogue involved interviews with thousands of African-American women so that the clothing could be tailored to look and feel better on these customers.

In addition to uncovering a preference for colors better suited to darker skin tones, the research even turned up style preferences that are rooted in the African-American heritage.  For example, said Spiegel spokeswoman Lori Scott (herself an African-American), “a coordinated look may be important to the E Style buyer for deeper cultural reasons.  Our great-great-grandparents were slaves.  We have enough struggles being African-American that we want to make a good impression.  We want to look good from head to toe.”

Commenting on the initial success of the catalogue, which resulted in “the most incredible response we’ve ever had,” Scott adds that “I don’t think this is something that’s just a trend.  It’s something that’s going to be around for a long, long time.  Nobody wants to be a melting pot anymore.”

Facts and Figures about Ethnic Market Segments

Black households spend more than three times as much on small appliances and twice as much on perishables as do non-black households.

The Asian-American market in the U.S. is equivalent to the populations of Los Angeles and New Orleans combined.

When it comes to business ownership, 5.7 percent of Asian-Americans are entrepreneurs, more than double the percentage of any other minority group.

Approximately 42 percent of the Asian-American population living in metropolitan areas resides in California.  Other pockets include New York City, Honolulu and Chicago.

Reflecting the fact that most industries have been slow to recognize the black niche as lucrative enough to merit a special appeal, almost 60 percent of black consumers feel that most ads “are designed only for white people.”  This was revealed in a study conducted by Yankelovich    Partners and Burrell Communications Group.

More than three-fourths of African-American consumers want to buy more products from black-owned firms, according to a study by the American Health & Beauty Aids Institute.  Regardless of the marketer’s ethnicity, blacks increasingly will base their buying decisions on two questions: “What are you giving back to the community in exchange for my patronage?”  And the bottom line:  “Is this the best value for my money?”

While African-Americans comprise 11 percent of the population, they buy 19 percent of all cosmetics and beauty aids, and 34 percent of all haircare products.

Black families with incomes of $30,000 or more spend about as much as white families who earn $50,000.

Half of the African-American market is between the ages of 25 and 44, and 56 percent are women.

While blacks watch 48 percent more TV than whites, radio reaches 96.5 percent of all African-Americans.

To exemplify the influence of the Hispanic culture on the nation’s eating habits, salsa has now surpassed ketchup as the number one condiment in America.

Hispanics spend an average of $91 per week per household on groceries (compared to $87 for Asians, $66 for African-Americans, and $62 for Anglos).  Gary Berman, president of Market Segment Research in Miami, attributes this to two factors:  “They have larger families, and food is a wonderful way for them to convey love for their families and be a good provider for the household.”

Berman also contends that Hispanic, African-American and Asian populations in this country tend to lag behind major U.S. trends by about five years, including concerns related to health, fitness and diet.

Hispanics are the most demanding of the population segments with regard to detailed product information.  Seventy percent of Hispanics strongly agreed that “I like to have a lot of information before I buy a product,” compared with the total population (53 percent), African-Americans (60 percent), Anglos (51 percent) and Asians (32 percent).

Hispanic consumers view and/or listen to significantly more television and radio than any other segment of the U.S. population – 55.2 hours per week compared with 32.4 hours for Anglos, 31.8 hours for African-Americans, 38.6 hours for Asians, and 31.8 hours for the total population.

Price is a bigger factor to Asian-Americans than the other ethnic groups.  While quality is most important to 59 percent of Asian-Americans surveyed by Market Segment Research, 30 percent claim price is most important.  By comparison, only 21 percent of African-Americans and 26 percent of Hispanics say price is most important.  Both latter groups give quality a 67 percent vote.

Successful Thai Entrepreneur Still Stays Close to Customers

When he first emigrated from Thailand to St. Louis, Missouri in 1975 (“everyone dreamed of coming here”), Suchin Propaisilp held down three jobs to make ends meet.  “I got up at 4 a.m. to make doughnuts that could be sold by 6 a.m.  From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., I worked in a warehouse packing tools.  Then, I went to the restaurant where I was a busboy and was always the last person to leave, sometimes as late as 11:30 p.m., after closing up.”

Realizing that this university town had few ethnic grocery stores to provide native foods to its many foreign students from Southeast Asia, Propaisilp and his brother decided to open a small shop.  “We had only $2,800, and moved into a 1,200-square-foot space in a marginal part of town with one light bulb, no freezer and no cooler,” he recalls.  “Our funds were so limited that we bought rice one bag at a time and sold it by the pound.  Nor could we afford to do any advertising.”

Word spread slowly about their ethnic foodstuffs, and “we would learn from the customers, based on their requests, what to stock.”  And, as Propaisilp describes, every Wednesday the brothers would drive five hours to Chicago in their used truck (“leaving at midnight so we didn’t need an hotel room”), stock up on produce and canned goods, and make it back to St. Louis by 8:00 the next night.

“One time,” recalls Propaisilp, “rust finally ate a big hole through the floor of our truck and, as we were driving back from Chicago, all the merchandise fell through onto the freeway.  Because cars kept coming, it took us two hours to gather everything up.”

With the influx of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the mid-1970s, Propaisilp found his customer base growing.  “Every Sunday after church, two busloads of people would arrive to shop.  They were so happy to see their own food.”

From its modest beginnings, Jay International Food currently occupies a total of 30,000 square feet – 20,000 square feet of it warehouse space.  More than 10,000 items are stocked from 17 countries, including India, Poland, Germany, Cuba, Hungary, Africa, Russia and the Philippines.  And Propaisilp estimates that the store attracts 3,000 to 3,500 customers a week, some of whom drive as long as one and one-half hours to buy the specialty merchandise.

Despite the impressive growth of his operations, Propaisilp still makes it a point to keep close to customers.  “Rather than sitting in an office, I work side by side with my employees (now numbering 17 full-time and four part-time), and talk to customers and try and understand their needs,” he explains, “even when there are linguistic barriers.  I enjoy the work, and always try to think of something new to add more variety.

“If you don’t think big, you won’t get big,” concludes Propaisilp.  “You’ve got to do the best you can – and go for it.”

Former Bank Executive Creates Dinnerware with an Ethnic Flair

Turning a negative situation into a positive one, Geoffrey Macon of LosAngeles rediscovered his niche in life as an entrepreneur and created a lucrative new business opportunity.  After 20 years of working for SecurityPacific Bank, Macon learned that his position of vice president and bank manager was being eliminated due to restructuring.  Like millions of Americans, Macon was faced with the daunting task of reinventing himself f,and decided to pursue a deferred dream: to become his own boss.  So in1992, with a $50,000 buyout from his former employer and his own savings, the divorced father of two launched Ethnicware, a manufacturer and distributor of Afrocentric stoneware plates, cups and saucers.

“I applied an exercise I’d used before in business to determine the direction in which I should go.” recalls Macon.  “First I settled on manufacturing and wholesaling, because they had less risk and more potential involved.  Then, realizing I needed to reach a market that hadn’t been tapped, I literally walked around my house to see which areas reflecting my own African-American heritage were already taken.  Others were already marketing garments, furniture and accessories, for example.

“Then it just hit me clear in the face,” Macon continues.  “The kitchen did not reflect any African cultural diversity.  It had no soul and spirit.  The influences on china up to this point were primarily European and Asian.  And so Ethnicware was born.”

Inspired by the dramatic patterns, textiles and colors of Africa, Macon created one of the first companies in the country that incorporates traditional and contemporary African art onto fine china stoneware.  The entrepreneur explains that Ethnicware’s goal is to “promote and uplift cultural and ethnic pride within the African-American community.”  He further states that “my desire was to develop a line of Afrocentric dinnerware with an uncompromising commitment to artistry.”

To achieve this, Macon first designed the primitive earth tone graphics himself, and then located a manufacturer to produce the line.  He contracted out the rest of his business operations – to a graphic artist who translates Macon’s ideas into form, a sales manager and an operations manager.

Having a self-admitted untrained but passionate eye for ethnic art, Macon has already introduced his four-pattern line into such major retail operations as J.C. Penney, and Macy’s and Bullock’s outlets in California and Texas.  He also markets his wares at industry trade shows throughout the country, and through direct sales.  In addition, Ethnicware is available at smaller specialty stores in New York, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, California, Florida, Ohio and Illinois.

As successful as his venture has been up to this point, Macon already has plans for expansion.  “While the company currently produces Afrocentric-inspired stoneware (including a recently introduced line of oversized mugs featuring original designs by the prominent black artists Varnette Honeywood and Synthia Saint James), we will move into other cultural backgrounds as well,” he promises.

“I have so many other designs that I’m anxious to do,” enthuses Macon, “working in collaboration with artists such as Honeywood and Saint James who will take my ideas and create new patterns from them.  As I told my son the other day, during the 20 years I was in banking, I exercised the analytical side of my brain.  And now since starting Ethnicware, I’m finally exercising the creative side.  It’s fabulous.”

Chinese Restauranteur Caters to Cultural Tradition

“The reason I moved from a smaller 2,500-square-foot location to my present 6,200-square-foot site in 1988 was location, location, location,” says Henry Luke, owner of the Grand Oriental Chinese Restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio.  “The new site was in a high growth area, with a lot of businesses and residents, as well as tourists drawn to King’s Island” (an amusement park similar to Six Flags in Atlanta or Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida).

During the week, the restaurant offers an “all you can eat” buffet to accommodate patrons who have only a short time for lunch.  In addition, Luke describes, dinner choices include “more authentic Chinese cuisine” such as seafood specialties and live lobster flown in from Boston.

Several years ago, Luke began serving dim sum on weekends, and now features 60 items including a variety of dumplings, spare ribs, sesame balls, custard tarts, and buns with fillings such as barbecue pork, lotus seed and red bean paste.  “We easily have the best quality and quantity of dim sum within a 150-mile radius,” he claims, “and attract people from as far away as Columbus, Lexington, Louisville and Indianapolis.”  And of those who take the time to drive to the Grand Oriental Chinese Restaurant on the weekends, 80 percent are Chinese, compared to 15 percent of patrons during the week.

As Luke explains, dim sum is a cultural tradition for the Chinese, representing closeness with family and friends.  “The word ‘sum,’ in fact, mans ‘heart.’  And on weekends, when people are off work, they often get together to have this special meal with their parents or grandparents.  Another part of the tradition is that only tea should be consumed,” he adds.

Luke prominently features the weekend dim sum special in his Yellow Pages ad, and credits it – along with positive word of mouth – for drawing new clientele.  And demographically, he is right on target in recognizing the importance of the area’s Asian community, which is the fastest-growing ethnic group in Cincinnati.

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