VISALIA -- Entrepreneurs seeking to focus on the growing Latino market in California and the nation should get to know the preferences of their potential customers, owners of Latino-oriented businesses said Tuesday at an annual valley forum.
Ricardo Cervantes, owner of La Monarca Bakery chain in Los Angeles, said that besides making a good product and figuring out how to get it to the customer efficiently, he focuses on customer intimacy "really getting to know the customer, where they shop, when they shop alone or with the family."
For instance, he said, a person from Mexico who sees an old building might think "that's an old building," while someone who grew up in the United States might think "that's a charming building."
As result, two La Monarca bakeries look fresh and new because the customers are almost exclusively foreign-born, while a bakery in Santa Monica has wooden floors and a more subdued color scheme to meet the tastes of customers there, he said.
He spoke Tuesday at the seventh annual Central Valley Venture Forum, a conference for entrepreneurs and inventors put on by the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at California State University, Fresno.
"This is an opportunity to look into the future," said Timothy Stearns, executive director of the Lyles Center.
Business broker Jeffrey Potts of Folsom said the conference made him think about possibly working with Latino-owned businesses seeking to sell to a new owner or merge with another company.
"There is a big market there," Potts said. "I'm inspired by the incredible potential of Hispanic-owned businesses in the valley."
Patricia Gutierrez, who manages Modesto-based Paleteria La Michoacana with her husband, gave a key piece of advice: Offering the least expensive product is a losing strategy.
"Quality translates into any ethnicity," said Gutierrez, whose business makes Latino ice cream treats.
Mark Martinez, president and CEO of the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the Latino market as a whole is still in its infancy and it's essential for businesses to develop relationships with their customers. "You must invest in the community to build brand loyalty," he said.
Ag points to Asia
Besides having a panel about Latino business, the conference also focused on California agriculture.
Ejnar Knudsen, co-portfolio manager of the Agriculture Fund at Passport Capital, said just the name "California" is a powerful brand in Asia. Additionally, the growth potential is huge because 200 million middle-class consumers are forecast to emerge in China alone. "We have a great brand to send food products to Asia," Knudsen said.
That's not the only boost for California agriculture, he said. As baby boomers age, they will seek to extend their lifetimes by consuming healthy food, a trend that valley agriculture can take advantage of, he said.
Keynote speaker Glenda Humiston, California director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, said international food exports and urban demand for fresh produce promises to make agriculture "the next big thing" in the state's economy.
"Is the 'Ag Valley' the next Silicon Valley?" Humiston said.
Fresno State agricultural business major Michael Fenn, 23, who attended the conference, said the trends highlighted by speakers give him hope that young people can make a good living in agricultural careers.
"I definitely think there is an opportunity to stay in the valley," Fenn said.