Taste of Home

Elda Devarie, founder of EMD Sales.

The CEO of a grassroots, multimillion-dollar enterprise shares her recipes for success collected over a quarter century in business

When she started as an independent broker, Elda Devarie provided services to companies from a spare room in her house. The  specialty food company that she would grow to a value of $31 million was born in the back of her minivan. Both endeavors were built from scratch, but the latter, EMD Sales, filled a void in the market: international food distribution. After more than two decades, Devarie has a pretty good idea what Americans are craving—and how to grow a business. 2014 celebrates EMD’s 25th anniversary and Devarie took a moment to sit down with HE to talk food and business growth.

What was the impetus for starting your business? What void in the market were you able to identify?
We were able to fill a void that existed for American consumers who wanted authentic, nostalgic food products from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Only a few brands could be found at that time offering tastes from home for immigrants. It was a great opportunity for us to make contacts with brands that are loved in their home countries and bring them to the US market. New generations are in touch with food culturally, and we provide international foods for customers looking to connect with their roots. We import from 17 different countries with 119 vendors and partners, bringing more than 150 brands to the marketplace. Some of these relationships span 25 years.

What challenges did you face in building this business from scratch?
Sourcing is always a challenge because you have to comply with a variety of regulations and many manufacturers aren’t necessarily ready to expand internationally, so you have to help them through that process and show them the potential. It’s a learning process for both companies involved in the partnership; they have to be able to make the investment, and we make sure that the product arrives with successful implementation. We’ve proven ourselves by successfully working in both independent stores and major supermarket chains. We take insight from the indie stores and apply it to the supermarkets, allowing us to satisfy all of our clients.

Can you describe some of the differences between working with the large chains versus smaller, niche partners?
You have to learn to play with the big companies and provide the same level of service and dedication to the account. We never wanted to be seen as a small company, as we have the ability to provide excellent service. Rather we want to be seen as an asset to our customers. We provide a vision of what communities are looking for and how to satisfy the end consumer. Whether you’re a mom-and-pop shop or a huge grocery store chain, we’re able to put these great products in your stores.

What have been your most successful strategies as a leader?
I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who know more than you and can bring something to the table. Hard work and perseverance are also essential. Another must is finding a way to connect with people. Networking and creating those long-term relationships are some of the biggest assets for any business owner.

In 25 years, what has been the linchpin of your business?
Our relationships, without a doubt. Once you’re part of the food industry, you don’t really leave. Through friendships we’ve learned from each other, shared information, and joined business associations who teach us how to be better entrepreneurs.

Where do you see the company going beyond this milestone?
Opportunities to expand geographically are always there, and we’re excited about that. There’s a new generation in our company that’s youthful and embraces technology, and we look forward to them learning from the current management and helping us adapt to the new marketplace.

You believe in paying it forward. Can you elaborate more on this?
On a personal level, I’ve been very blessed that many people have lent a hand to help me get to where I am. I’m originally from Puerto Rico, and the community has welcomed me with open arms. It’s part of my mission to develop a company where people can grow, take care of their families and prosper. We choose to be a role model and a leader in our community. We are supporting and developing great relationships with various charitable organizations in the mid-Atlantic region.

We have also developed Bags of Love, a program six years in the making. Essentially we put our vendors, customers, and charitable and religious organizations together to donate 50 pounds of food items and a $25 food gift certificate to 800 families in Maryland; Washington, DC; Virginia; and Pennsylvania. We do this in the dead of winter after Christmas when food bank donations are at the lowest. It shows that somebody cares and that we’re here
for them.

Workers prepare packages for the Bags of Love program. Since 2009, the donations  have helped more than 3,700 families with a total investment of approximately $500,000.
Workers prepare packages for the Bags of Love program. Since 2009, the donations have helped more than 3,700 families with a total investment of approximately $500,000.

What’s your biggest inspiration?
My biggest source of inspiration is my family and my community. I enjoy being an entrepreneur and being able to pass that on to future generations. As a first-generation immigrant in this country, I feel the responsibility to contribute, to be an example of responsibility, and to be a source of inspiration. Anyone willing to work hard and sacrifice can come here and have the chance to make it in this great nation.