At first, he thought it was a joke. When Manny Gaunaurd, founder and CEO of Hispanic cookware manufacturer IMUSA, that ubiquitous maker of calderos and comales, and his business partner received a call in 2008 from a woman claiming to be a buyer from Target—as in the enormous chain deparment store—he was convinced it wasn’t real. “We told her, We’re really busy now and we don’t think we can make your order. Just give us your number and we’ll call you back when we can,” Gaunaurd says, recalling they had been deceived before by similar calls from people who turned out never to be actual buyers. “My partner took down the woman’s number, then looked up the area code and realized it was from Minneapolis—Target headquarters! He said, Ay Dios mio…I think we just hung up on Target!”
Of course, Gaunaurd called back, explained the mistake and just a few weeks later was on his way to Minneapolis to fill the store’s order, give its executives a primer on what Hispanic customers want—and make a little history along the way. Target was one of the first major American big-box stores to stock authentic Hispanic cookware, from molcajetes to arepa makers, and in doing so lead the way for what’s now a bona fide national obsession with Latin food among Latinos and non-Latinos alike. Today, Gaunaurd’s wares—with more than 4,000 products in total, IMUSA is the largest Hispanic cookware company in America—are sold nationwide at Wal-Mart, Sears, Kohl’s, Macy’s and more. “We have to be one of the few lines that can boast that we’re at both Wal-Mart and Macy’s,” says Gaunaurd of the Miami-based company. “It’s because we’ve built a line of products that are the real thing and because we continue to improve on them.”
What that means is that IMUSA doesn’t just manufacture traditional, artisanal-inspired kitchen tools. “We look at how we can adapt them for modern cooking,” Gaunaurd, 42, says. Case in point: anyone who’s ever used a classic caldero to start a dish on the stove and finish it off in the oven knows the pot’s lid, which features a plastic knob, can’t go in the oven because it will melt. Out the foil paper must come to cover the pot, a messy and cumbersome process. So when Gaunaurd developed his newer caldero, he made sure it had an oven-proof top and made the whole thing non-stick for good measure. Sounds simple enough, yet it had never before been done.
Another example: a traditional comal, the flat griddle on which tortillas are typically warmed, features only one handle on the side and is completely flat. “It’s hard to carry the comal with just one handle,” Gaunaurd says, “and if you add a little salsita to anything, it can spill off that flat edge.” Enter IMUSA’s update with two heat-proof handles and a small lip around the edge to prevent spills. Gaunaurd’s pressure cookers are less intimidating than old school ones, his fabric tortilla warmers are more stylish and efficient, and his tamaleras come in a box that tells buyers how many tamales can fit in the pot—one used to have to guess!—and with a glass lid rather than an aluminum one, so you can watch your carefully wrapped delicacies simmer. The point? While a kitchen innovation may seem less substantial than the kind that occurs in, say, a scientific lab, it can be just as influential. “Food is such an important part of preserving our traditions and passing them on to our children,” Gaunaurd says. “I think that what IMUSA does is make it easier for people do that. We help keep our culture alive.”
The oldest of five brothers born to Cuban exile parents, Gaunaurd grew up in Miami immersed both in Hispanic culture and in his parent’s hard-core work ethic. They owned a popular party-supply and home accessories store in the 80s, and as a teenager Gaunaurd and his brothers worked there, collecting carts and stocking merchandise. “We got no special treatment,” he recalls with a laugh. “We were expected to work hard. We learned that nothing comes for free. It was a great lesson for me.”
While in college, he moonlighted for an U.S. kitchen wares company helping develop its distribution in South and Central America. He travelled the region, eating authentic foods from Colombian arepas to Mexican taquitos. As he savored his travels, he also watched the US Hispanic community grow in both size and influence—and dreamed of merging the two. IMUSA, the brand, had already been existence for decades in Colombia, but it had no US presence. Gaunaurd boldly offered the Bogotá-based company to build their American arm. And the rest is history.
Today, Gaunaurd, a single dad to 10-year-old Manny and 7-year-old Nico, is known not only as an expert in targeting Hispanic customers, but in modernizing ethnic kitchen wares for acculturated American audiences, in tapping into the nostalgia and passion people feel for their native foods and helping them pass it on to a new generation of diverse Americans. Indeed, he’s now working on doing for Asian cooking what he did for Hispanic by updating woks and steamers, for example. But, he says, whatever else may be on his professional plate, his heart remains with the calderos and comales. “I’m so proud of what we’ve done for Latin food,” he says. “That will always be the core of what we do.”