Dan, Nathaniel, and Phil Calhoun used to own a landscaping company that employed a number of Hispanic immigrants.
The brothers had grown up in Mexico, the sons of American missionaries, could speak Spanish fluently, and would often converse with their workers at lunchtime. One lament they heard regularly was that good tortillas were hard to come by in the area. At the time Ortega and Old El Paso hard shells were much more likely to occupy shelf space at the grocery than the pliable foodstuff that is served at many a table in Mexico and Central America.
And with that, the brothers heard a business opportunity knocking.
“They (the workers) just wanted some fresh tortillas,” Dan Calhoun says. “They’re the ones who pushed us into that. They said if they could find some good tortillas, they would buy them.”
Today the brothers run Cuervito Morado, a distributor of chorizo, queso fresco, and chicharrones, as well as tortillas and other Latin American foods. The company, based in Winston-Salem, employs about 100 people and operates out of a 100,000-square-foot warehouse and office facility. Many of the employees there are recent immigrants, and those who work in the offices answer the phones in Spanish.
The Hispanic population in North Carolina has grown significantly over the past three decades. About 885,000 Latinos call the state home, according to the U.S. Census, making up around 9 percent of the population. That’s up from 379,000 in 2000, and 75,000 in 1990. About 45,000 Latinos reside in Forsyth County, which has the third-highest Hispanic population in the state, after Mecklenburg and Wake counties.
The Calhouns’ parents met at what is now Piedmont International University in Winston-Salem. They worked for about 35 years south of the border, and the brothers spent much of their childhood in the Mexican state of Veracruz. “We never did not know both languages,” Phil says.
“We went to school in English, spoke English at home,” Dan says. “But we played with our friends in Spanish, prayed with them in Spanish. Spanish was the language that was all around us.”
The brothers returned to the U.S. as adults and started their landscaping business in 1986. Prompted by the discussions they had with their workers about food, they ventured to Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1995 to learn about tortilla making. They brought machinery back with them, and soon set up shop on Sprague Street, producing corn tortillas.
“The market back then was a lot different than it is now,” Dan says. “Tortillas have become a staple. But, back in those days, the bank wouldn’t lend you any money on a tortilla machine. They saw it as this one-off little experiment.”
The brothers have differing accounts on how they came up with the name Cuervito Morado, which is Spanish for “purple crow.” “We were trying to figure out a mascot,” Dan says. “And you start thinking about corn tortillas. Corn fields. Crows. And we thought about what color the crow would be. And we had a lady working with us who says that if you look at a crow on a bright day, they have kind of a purplish-blue sheen to them.”
Phil recalls that the color came about as a result of a printing error. “My recollection was that we wanted the black crow, but when the print shop ran the first 50,000 bags, they didn’t come back black,” he says.
Either way, the company ended up with a smiling cartoon crow sporting a sombrero and red bandana.
In 1998, they began distributing other products, and for a time even ran a store. They sold their landscaping company in 2002 to focus on the food business. They also put out a food magazine called Abasto.
The brothers no longer make their tortillas in house, sourcing them along with about 30 other Cuervito Morado branded products from outside manufacturers.
“We tell them what we want, within these parameters,” Nathaniel says. “They’re recipes we like.”
They also distribute other food brands, and altogether they handle about 3,000 products ranging from soaps to paper goods to packaged desserts.
The company distributes to eight states in the region and supplies many of the Hispanic groceries in the area.
“The demand keeps going up,” Dan says. “We’re dependent on the small independent grocery stores for our growth. There weren’t too many of those little tiendas (stores) around when we started. But now those little stores are staying busy, and so long as the economy is good we stay busy.”
TOP LEFT: Cuervito Morado was founded in 1995 by brothers Nat, Phil, and Dan Calhoun (pictured left to right). TOP RIGHT: The company is based in a 100,000-sq.-ft. warehouse on Lowery Street in East Winston, where workers package and distribute various Latin American food items. (seen right).
For information on products, where to buy, recipes, and more, go to purplecrow.com.
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