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Maria Elena’s offers organic selections

Food: After an ‘aha’ moment, Jerry Gonzalez opens market to sell fresh produce

Posted: December 9, 2010 10:00 p.m.
Updated: December 10, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Jerry Gonzalez, of Maria Elena’s and The Bernod Group novelty-food companies, speaks to a group touring the all natural, organic food snacks manufacturing facility in Valencia.

 

Being diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer three months before launching his organic-food business didn’t deter Jerry Gonzalez.

“It never occurred to me to postpone opening the business,” Gonzalez said. “It was just something else on my plate.”

The novelty snack-food firm Maria Elena’s began with the formation of the Bernod Group in 2002. Gonzalez, who is president, and co-founder John Mularky launched a line of organic popcorn and cotton candy that today is sold at amusement park and entertainment venues, such as Six Flags Magic Mountain, Universal City Walk, Santa Monica Pier and Raging Waters.

The uniquely flavored cotton candies and popcorn also are sold through the retail outlets Whole Foods and Home Goods and distributed by a few hotels, Gonzalez said.

Broader market
The idea for the company Maria Elena’s followed the introduction of the Bernod Group’s novelty foods.

The Bernod Group also sold tropical-flavored ice at Magic Mountain.

For a Hispanic-theme day the park was planning, Gonzalez and Mularky asked if their company could sell agua frescas (Spanish for fresh water) for the event, and were given an OK by the park.

The company prepared and sold horchata — a well-known refreshment in the Hispanic culture — and was surprised by the wide acceptance by park visitors.

The drink is traditionally made from rice water and ground cinnamon.

“That was an ‘aha’ moment for me,” Gonzalez said. “We were surprised how many people were buying the product and knew what it was.”

Gonzalez said it was through that experience he realized that horchata was not just for Hispanics, but appealed to a wider market. He started the company Maria Elena’s as a result.

Named after his mother, the company today manufactures the organic powdered drink using only six natural ingredients.

Shoestring marketing
In early 2010, Bill Miranda joined Gonzalez and Mularky as an investor and vice president.

The three businessmen, all local residents, have been working on expanding brand awareness for their products and figuring how to market the organic products on basically a shoestring budget.

The business owners’ budget for monthly in-store product samplings at grocery stores to build product and brand awareness with consumers.

Gonzalez said they don’t realize an immediate increase in sales from the product samplings, but see a spike later as demand for the product to be re-stocked results in increased orders.

Such “product turns” can be an indicator of how many people know about the product, whether marketing is working or that the stores are giving the product attractive placement on the shelves.

It’s also important that products not sit on the shelves long because they are freshly made in limited, to-order quantities, and the goal is to deliver fresh products to the consumers.

“The challenge is to get retailers and consumers to switch over to quality-based products, not price based (products),” Gonzalez said.

National fame
With fingers crossed, the business owners are awaiting the result of a product test being conducted by a nationally and internationally known food chain. While Gonzalez isn’t free to release the name publicly, the chain is currently testing some of The Bernod Group’s products in its stores.

Depending on the outcome, the organic products could soon end up in shopping malls nationwide.

Valencia manufacturer
The Bernod Group and Maria Elena’s produce freshly made and packaged products out of their Valencia warehouse.

Gonzalez purchased the building and leases the space back to the partnering businesses.

Gonzalez has lived in Santa Clarita for 26 years.

“The unsung hero in all this has really been my wife,” Gonzalez said. “She has the patience to put up with me building these businesses.”

Maria Elena’s and the Bernod Group are located at 29021 Ave. Sherman in Valencia and can be reached at (661) 295-9833.

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