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Joseph Unanue, 88; oversaw growth spurt at Goya Foods

Joseph A. Unanue (left) and his brother Francisco were photographed at their test kitchen in their Puerto Rican plant.

Goya Foods Inc./2002

Joseph A. Unanue (left) and his brother Francisco were photographed at their test kitchen in their Puerto Rican plant.

NEW YORK — Joseph A. Unanue, who as chief executive helped Goya Foods become the largest family-owned Hispanic food company in the United States, died Wednesday at his home in Alpine, N.J. He was 88.

The cause was complications of pulmonary fibrosis, said his son, Andy.

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Mr. Unanue was one of four sons of Prudencio and Carolina Unanue, who founded Goya in 1936 to sell olives, olive oil, sardines, and other food to local Hispanic families.

Andy Unanue said his father started working at the company as a boy, delivering food and running errands during the summer and on weekends.

Joseph Andrew Unanue was born in Brooklyn. He served in the Army in World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star. After the war he attended the Catholic University of America and graduated with an engineering degree before joining the family business.

“We had a hard time convincing the chain stores that the Hispanics pay with money,” he said in a 2004 interview with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which was recognizing him as part of an exhibit about Latino achievement.

Andy Unanue said some supermarkets were initially reluctant to give Goya shelf space alongside more mainstream items and, instead, offered the company a separate section for its goods. “Instead of refusing the lesser offer, he used it to the company’s advantage and took it,” he said. “We still have some stores that have Goya sections, and that is because of my dad.”

The company was founded as a storefront business in Lower Manhattan by Prudencio Unanue, who had moved to the United States from Puerto Rico after emigrating there from his native Spain as a young man. He died in 1976, leaving the company to his sons, Joseph, Charles, Francisco, and Anthony.

Joseph Unanue was named chief executive in the mid-1970s and had increased revenue to more than $1 billion, from $20 million, by the time he left in 2004. Under his watch, Goya struck up a relationship with Walmart and a number of grocery chains.

He is also credited with coining the company’s advertising slogan, “Goya — oh boya!”

Mr. Unanue and his son, who became chief operating officer, left Goya Foods after a disagreement with other family members about the company’s direction. Still, Mr. Unanue, a major shareholder, retained a seat on the board. He was also an adviser to the private equity firm that Andy Unanue started after leaving Goya.

In addition to his son and his wife of 58 years, Carmen, Mr. Unanue leaves three daughters, Mimi Unanue Guggenheim, Maribel Unanue, and Mari Unanue. Another son, Joseph F., died in 1998, and a daughter, Mary Ann, died in 2009.

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