By Antonio Zavala
CHICAGO – An American businesswoman has discovered a niche market in Chicago of Mexican consumers with a taste for pulque, an alcoholic drink made from the sap of the maguey plant.
Heather Weinthaler, president of Hispanic Beverage Importers, told Efe in an interview that it all began in 2007 on a visit to Mexico City to attend a marketing seminar where she met some pulque producers.
“It was pure coincidence – they were looking for someone in Chicago to distribute pulque,” Weinthaler said.
After looking into the potential of the Hispanic market in the city of Chicago and its suburbs, where according to U.S. Census figures some 2 million Mexicans live, Weinthaler began her business of importing pulque in 2008.
Weinthaler, a 33-year-old graduate of Loyola University, said that her business located in the Hispanic area of La Villita has begun to yield results after two years, turning a profit last year of $120,000.
“We began with five or six client retailers two years ago,” the entrepreneur said. “Now we have 300 stores in Chicago and 50 suburbs that sell our product.”
Pulque is a drink made from sap extracted from the maguey or agave plant and has existed in Mexico since the time of the Aztecs, who called it “octli.”
It is a milky white, somewhat viscous beverage and the popular “pulquerias” that sell it were the refuge of Indians and poor mestizos during the colonial era and into the 19th century. It was, however, largely supplanted by beer during the last century.
Even so, making this drink is still and industry in central Mexico and its version as an export item now comes in cans and in several flavors including lemon, coconut-pineapple and passion fruit.
Months after founding her company, which now has several employees, Weinthaler took a trip to Tlaxcala state to visit the farm of her supplier, the Pulque Hacienda company.
“I had the chance to meet the family that produces the pulque and since that encounter I believe it wasn’t me that chose pulque but rather pulque that chose me,” the businesswoman said.
The pulque company owned by the Del Razo family was the first to can the beverage in 1980.
The Chicagoan imports the Pulque Hacienda 1881 product in boxes of 24 cans each and sells it in 4-packs at $5.50.
Weinthaler said that she has needed some ingenious marketing stunts to interest Hispanic stores in launching the product for Latino consumers.
“I dress up like China Poblana (a folklore character based on an Asian woman who came to colonial Mexico as a servant) in stores and offer samples of pulque to Hispanic consumers,” Weinthaler, who speaks perfect Spanish, said.
“My nickname is ‘la guera pulquera’ (the blonde pulque-seller). After looking for some way to call myself that was typically Mexican, it was the people who came up with that name,” she said.
“It’s something very special,” said Onis Uscande of the client store Moreno’s Liquors. “At first I thought, how can a blonde sell pulque? We Mexicans want to triumph in this country, but it was she who had the good idea of marketing that product here.”
“People have accepted it very well. They come from all over to buy it,” store owner Rosemary Moreno told Efe.
“Some people buy it because they have heard of pulque in Mexico and others buy it for its flavor, for the recipes you can make with it and for what are believed to be its medicinal properties,” Moreno said.
Roberto Cornelio, executive director of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that Weinthaler’s experience is not unique, since there is plenty of opportunity for importing Mexican products for Hispanic consumers in Chicago and other U.S. cities. EFE