Fort Mill tequila importer looks to expand

Business EditorDecember 9, 2012 

— When Celestino Hernandez Lopez – Tino for short – moved from California to Charlotte in 1994, he found only a few of the Mexican foods he grew up with.

And when he found them, the price was twice what it should have been.

Lopez worked two jobs to raise the $40,000 he estimated was needed to open a small grocery store and “ carnicería” – Spanish for butcher shop. He knew Latinos would come, because “we eat the whole cow.”

There wasn’t anywhere in the Charlotte region that sold all the cow, from tongue to tail, Lopez said.

Lopez’ investment estimate was drastically low.

“Our figures were not so good,” he said, but his assessment of demand was on target. Soon after he finally opened his first store on South Boulevard in Charlotte, he expanded to Central Avenue and other locations.

At the height of his success, Lopez owned two stores, two meat markets, three bakeries, a restaurant and three food trucks in Charlotte.

“It was too much,” Lopez said. “It was out of my hands. I was working like crazy and had no extra time.”

There were also some tax troubles. Others saw how well he was doing and competition arrived, so Lopez started looking for something else to do.

He went back home, so to speak. Lopez was born in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.

Jalisco is the center of blue agave agriculture. Blue agave is the base ingredient in tequila. Millions of plants line the valleys and hills. Mature plants – between eight and 10 years old – are harvested.

The center – the “ pina” or hearts – are removed and steamed. The resulting liquid is fermented, distilled twice and diluted with water. The result is tequila.

Lopez’ knowledge of the Latino community in South Carolina and North Carolina told him there would be a demand.

Market studies showed there was a rising interest in 100 percent blue agave tequila, as opposed to the “mixtos,” a blend of 51 percent blue agave and other sugars. Mixtos are generally less expensive and used to make bulk margaritas and as “rail” brands in bars.

He formed Tequila Tino Imports and reached a deal with Mexican distiller Compañía Tequilera De Arandos.

His brand name is Galera Vieja, and he imports four different kinds of tequila – silver, gold, reposado and anejo.

The last two are aged in white oak barrels affecting their taste and smoothness. Reposado ages between six months and a year while Anejo ages one to three years. The longer a tequila ages, the smoother the taste.

Each bottle has a label with the words: “Tequila Tino Imports, LLC, Fort Mill, S.C.”

Lopez decided on South Carolina – and Fort Mill specifically – for a basic business reason, he said: It was easier to do business here than in North Carolina.

Lopez is learning that the tequila business requires every bit as much patience as running an ethnic grocery did.

It took two years to obtain the necessary permits and federal registrations. Building a distribution network is also time consuming. Lopez has had some success regionally and is working to expand distribution in North Carolina. He has his eye on Florida and sends some of his tequila to California.

He is finding it even harder to break into the restaurant market, where bars have only so much space for bottles.

And, he admits, some of his problems might be because of the name he chose for his brand – Galera Vieja – which translates as “Old Warehouse.”

“Just call it GV,” he said with a laugh.

“The challenge is getting people to try it,” Lopez said. But once they do, he’s convinced they try it again.

“The quality is in the bottle.”

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Don Worthington 803-329-4066 dworthington@heraldonline.com

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