BIG ON BRAVO

Orlando, Fla., received more new residents from New York than from any other state in the late 1990s -- many of them Hispanic. So it's fitting that Cesar Ramirez, owner of three Bravo stores in the New York area and a native of the Dominican Republic, would open his fourth and fifth stores there.Ramirez and his business partner, Luis Merejo, were visiting Orlando when they spotted a 3,000-square-foot

Orlando, Fla., received more new residents from New York than from any other state in the late 1990s -- many of them Hispanic. So it's fitting that Cesar Ramirez, owner of three Bravo stores in the New York area and a native of the Dominican Republic, would open his fourth and fifth stores there.

Ramirez and his business partner, Luis Merejo, were visiting Orlando when they spotted a 3,000-square-foot grocery store for sale. It seemed to be the perfect place to test a concept that seemed to be lacking: a store where Hispanic shoppers could find Hispanic products at competitive prices in a clean and friendly environment.

"We saw an opportunity, and we grabbed it," Ramirez said.

Ramirez and Merejo bought and expanded the store about one year ago. Encouraged by weekly sales, they opened a second, larger one four months ago with a third partner and fellow Dominican, Marino Abre. All three take turns overseeing it.

Other current and former Bravo owners saw the same potential and convinced Bravo's supplier, Krasdale Foods, to start a group there. Initially hesitant about going so far from its core market, White Plains, N.Y.-based Krasdale decided to take a chance, and thus began Bravo's first expansion beyond the New York region.

"They found that the independent sector was grossly underserved," said Mitch Klein, the wholesaler's vice president of retail services. The company supplies 50 Bravos, 200 C-Town and 200 Aim stores in the New York area. "High-quality meats and competitive prices to the chains were not available."

Today, Florida is home to six Bravo stores in the Orlando, Tampa and Miami areas, ranging in size from 7,000 to 25,000 square feet. Larger than the bodegas that dot the neighborhoods, but smaller than their conventional peers, the Hispanic-format supermarkets fill a niche in Central Florida, observers said.

Bravo's biggest and fanciest unit is its new Orlando location, a 25,000-square-foot store on Semoran Boulevard formerly occupied by an Office Max. The format is conventional: produce at the front, followed by wine, cheese, fish, full-service meat and bakery departments ringing the dry-goods aisles. There's a 99-cent aisle filled mostly with general merchandise and HBC products.

Latin music, potted palm trees and terra cotta accents, however, lend a Hispanic flavor. Recent lobby displays featured brands that speak to the overwhelmingly Hispanic clientele: Rico rice, Iberia soda and Goya beans.

Weekly sales at the six Florida stores are running in the range of $70,000 at the smaller, older units, to $200,000 at the Semoran Boulevard store. While sales there likely will soften as grand-opening promotions taper off, Klein is pleased with their performance so far. He looks to add six more stores in Florida by year's end. He said services like banking and pharmacy will come later, noting that in surveys, local residents didn't list those as the most important features in a supermarket.

"They wanted to be truly recognized as a consumer. They want to get local products they were used to and at a fair price, and a clean, neat store," Klein told SN.

Hispanic products, representing roughly one quarter of the store's 25,000 stockkeeping units, are the hallmark there. Most are integrated throughout the aisles to encourage people to walk the entire store. Shoppers will find Argentinian cookies in the cookie aisle, Mexican beer in the beer aisle, and Goya products in the bean section. A dozen popular ethnic brands, including Cafe Cubita and Cafe Caribe, share the coffee aisle with mainstream national brands. The produce section stocks not only traditional plantains, but the bigger and sweeter Hawaiian variety, as well as baby bananas -- the sweet, miniature bananas common in Latin America.

An international aisle is reserved for non-staple, imported products like oregano from the Dominican Republic and La Costena canned jalapeno peppers from Mexico. Products are arranged by ethnicity: for example, Mexican, Chinese and South American.

Visitors to the store have praised its tidy appearance, wide product selection and excellent service.

It's "very tastefully done," said Chris Graham, marketing director at Paskert Distributing in Tampa, a Hispanic-food wholesaler to major conventional supermarkets.

Myriam Cardama, marketing and operations director for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando, admired the store's "very Latin" decor, variety of fish, takeout food, and long loaves of freshly baked bread.

Calvin J. Miller, president and chief executive officer of Associated Grocers of Florida, Bravo's Florida distributor, remarked on the store's cleanliness and polite staff. He said the store manages to market superbly to Latinos without skimping on the national U.S. brands. "Being an Anglo, I can go in there and do all my shopping," he stated.

Miller helped make that possible. In the New York area, Krasdale Foods supplies Bravo stores with its Krasdale private label and some national brands. Rather than build a distribution center in Florida to supply its new stores there, Krasdale called on Miller, who is a longtime friend of Krasdale CEO Charles Krasne. Miller agreed to step out of his wholesaler role and be Krasdale's distributor in Florida.

Hispanics are helping make Orlando one of the fastest-growing markets in the country. Their population grew from 8.2% of the four-county metropolitan statistical area in 1990 to 18.9% in 2003. They are projected to account for 24.6% of its population in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and Orlando Sentinel Communications, publisher of the Orlando Sentinel. Drawn by the availability of jobs and low cost of living, the area's new Latino residents include immigrants and transplants from cities like Miami, New York, Chicago and Texas.

The competing chains in the area -- Winn-Dixie Stores, Albertsons and Publix Super Markets -- have been adding products and Spanish-language signs to better serve the growing Hispanic population. Publix has been integrating Hispanic product selections throughout its stores.

"All the chains are starting to realize, 'The business is here, and we do need to cater to the Hispanics,"' Graham said.

Still, Graham doubted Bravo will have much impact on conventional stores. He noted chain stores have, on average, twice the square footage of Bravo and they offer more ancillary services.

"I think they're going to go after mom and pops because they aren't a full-service supermarket," he said. "They don't have a pharmacy."

Klein said he doesn't expect to put the big chains out of business, noting Bravo carries products they don't.

"Candidly, we're surprised," Klein admitted. "We didn't think we'd be the first to come down with that kind of store."

It's a different story in Miami, where the chains already have Hispanic formats.

"Miami is definitely more challenging than Orlando," Klein said. "There is a well-established Latin market in Miami, which is operated well. We still feel there is a need for another operator. Our main selling point in Miami is personal service to the consumer, as well as extremely fresh produce at a very competitive price."

BRAVO'S SHOPPING LIST

Puerto Ricans have long been the dominant force within Orlando's Hispanic population, but the growing masses of Colombians, Argentinians, Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, Venezuelans and others challenge retailers to keep their product selection current.

The best way to find out what these diverse shoppers want is to simply ask. Alvin Urena, manager of Bravo's four-month-old Semoran Boulevard store, said when store managers walk the floor, they're doing more than making sure shelves are stocked.

"It's very informal," Urena said. "We try to pride ourselves on customer service. When people are checking out and when managers walk around and ask if they need help, the customer always lets you know. And we always try and bring it to them."

Urena recently has had to track down vendors of specific import brands of soda, queso blanco and soda crackers after his Colombian shoppers asked for them. It isn't always easy finding a vendor who can supply the brand he's looking for but, happily, vendors often come to him when they learn about the city's new store.