April 24, 2014

Small Business

Second-stage business success stories

How five Florida businesses grew despite a slow economy.

Mike Vogel | 1/31/2012

Recipe for Success

Maria Ibañez
[Photo: Daniel Portnoy]

"We haven't noticed a recession."

- Maria Ibañez, founder

Intermark Foods
Doral
2010 Revenue: $9.4 million (up from $3.7 million in 2007)
Employees: 22 (up from 20 last year)

Even as financially strapped consumers have cut back on their grocery purchases over the past several years, Intermark Foods has enjoyed meteoric growth by catering to an ethnic niche. The food distribution company, which distributes around 200 refrigerated and frozen foods under the El Latino brand, has more than doubled its revenue over the past three years and is planning to expand distribution along the east coast.

"We haven't noticed a recession," says Maria Ibañez, a native Colombian who founded the company in 2002. Ibañez, 58, credits her success to what she says is the superior taste of Intermark's products — including cheeses, breads, meats and smoothies — that she says appeal to Hispanic-Americans' sense of nostalgia.

For Ibañez, the food business is a departure from earlier ventures. Between 1980 and 1998, she launched and sold two international computer distribution firms with combined revenues of $87 million. After retiring in 2000, Ibañez says she grew bored. A 2002 visit to her hair salon sparked an idea. Another customer, she says, was talking about how the Central American cheese import business she worked for was unable to keep up with the demand of local Hispanic markets. Ibañez decided she could probably do a better job and hired the woman on the spot. She came up with the name El Latino, hired a designer to do labels and began importing a million dollars' worth of cheese. As her business grew, however, the unpredictability of the U.S. Customs process made it difficult to keep a steady supply of cheese flowing to the supermarkets that carried El Latino. Ibañez traveled to Wisconsin with a handful of recipes and found a supplier who could make the Central and South American cheeses she was distributing. Ibañez eventually grew her El Latino product line to include several types of sausages (all manufactured in Miami) and an array of other foods, ranging from frozen tropical fruits to arepas (a patty made of ground corn dough or cooked flour) and flan.

Today, El Latino products are carried by some 600 stores (including Publix, Winn-Dixie and Walmart) from Palm Beach to the Florida Keys. Intermark has two other distributors that supply its products to stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and Orlando, Tampa and Kissimmee — and Ibañez is looking for distributors to expand into North Carolina and Washington, D.C. She sees nothing but growth ahead for her company, which is expanding five times faster than companies in the traditional U.S. food industry. "The Hispanic market is growing so fast — and our products are making the crossover to the American consumer."

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