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Was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Named Goya’s ‘Employee of the Month’?

Claim

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) was named Goya's "employee of the month" because the company's chief executive officer felt that her criticism of the brand increased sales.

Rating

Decontextualized

Reporting

On December 7 2020, right-wing “personality” Candace Owens (among others) asserted that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) was selected as “employee of the month” at Goya because her calls to boycott the brand purportedly led to an increase in sales:

In the link provided by Sean Hannity, a post on his blog (Hannity.com) began:

The Goya food company publicly named Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez its “Employee of the Month” in recent days [on December 8 2020] after the politician’s botched boycott boosted sales roughly 1,000%.

The Claim

USA Today‘s coverage of the claim was more measured, explaining that Goya chief executive officer Bob Unanue had made the claim about Ocasio-Cortez (also referred to as “AOC”) during a December 7 2020 podcast interview:

Goya Foods CEO Bob Unanue said Monday [December 7 2020 that] Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was selected as the company’s “employee of the month” earlier this year [2020] after she drew attention to the boycott against the company, and a spike in sales followed.

[…]

Unanue, appearing on “The Michael Berry Show” on Monday [December 7 2020], said Ocasio-Cortez “was actually our employee of the month.”

“When she boycotted us, our sales actually increased 1,000%, so we gave her an honorary — we never were able to hand it to her — she got employee of the month for bringing attention to Goya and our adobo,” he claimed.

iHeartRadio provided a 33-second-long clip of Unanue’s comments on the Michael Berry show. In the relevant portion, Unanue stated in part:

I love [AOC] … She was actually our employee of the month, I don’t know if you know about this … because when she boycotted us, our sales actually increased 1000 percent …

So we gave her an honorary — we were never able to hand it to her, but she got employee of the month for bringing attention to Goya … actually our adobo sales went — very well after she said “make your own adobo.”

Unanue made two statements in particular during that brief exchange that went on to be taken as an article of faith in reporting. First, he told Berry: “I don’t know if you know about this,” indicating the claims which followed were not new. They were as follows:

  • That after a July 2020 controversy during which lawmakers (among them Rep. Ocasio-Cortez) called for a boycott of Goya, that sales increased a thousand percent solely because of Ocasio-Cortez;
  • That in mid-2020, Ocasio-Cortez had been deemed an “honorary” employee of the month for Goya Foods;
  • And, implicitly, that those claims were not new as of December 7 2020.

Did AOC Alone Call for a Goya Boycott, and Was CEO Bob Unanue Happy About a July 2020 Boycott?

A July 10 2020 CNN article about controversy over Goya’s friendliness with the Trump administration noted that Julián Castro also castigated Unanue on Twitter, and that Ocasio-Cortez was not the only person displeased with the brand. Incidentally, the piece was titled “Goya Foods boycott takes off after its CEO praises Trump.”

Moreover, CNN noted Unanue was not initially praising AOC over boycott calls, decrying them as “suppression of speech”:

President Trump is unpopular among Hispanic Americans. Hispanics favor Vice President Joe Biden over Trump in the race for president by a 36 percentage-point margin, according to the latest New York Times/Siena College poll. Trump began his campaign by criticizing Mexican immigrants for being “rapists” and bringing drugs into the United States. He has spent much of his presidency trying to build a wall along the southern US border and enacted a policy that separated children from parents when they were apprehended at the border.

Unanue was invited to the White House as part of President Trump’s Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, an executive order aimed at improving Hispanic Americans’ access to educational and economic opportunities.

In an interview with Fox News [in July 2020], Unanue said he was “not apologizing,” and called the boycott movement “suppression of speech.”

Unanue claimed a double standard in the reaction to his laudatory remarks about Trump, noting he accepted an invitation from Michelle Obama in 2012 to an event in Tampa, Florida, to promote the former first lady’s healthy-eating initiative.

Julián Castro does not have the same viral headline appeal as Ocasio-Cortez, and had Unanue claimed he awarded Castro “employee of the month,” the soundbite would have likely not gone anywhere.

Finally, there is the fact that she did not formally call for a boycott to begin with:

‘I Don’t Know If You Know About This … She Got Employee of the Month’

Unanue framed his two-pronged claim about Ocasio-Cortez’s boycott calls as something Berry might have previously heard.

We looked for previous mentions. It did not appear that Unanue or anyone at Goya Foods had ever claimed Ocasio-Cortez was “employee of the month” before December 7 2020. Although a handful of results were returned for the search, they were either misdated entries or unrelated links. We were unable to find anything substantiating the claim.

‘I Don’t Know If You Know About This,’ Goya ‘Sales Actually Increased 1000 Percent’ After July 2020 Calls to Boycott

Once again, Unanue framed his comments as if podcast listeners had possibly encountered the claims before, among them that sales for Goya Foods had increased by a thousand percent as a direct result of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of the brand and its affiliation with the Trump administration.

Given Unanue’s reversal of his initial assessment that the boycott constituted a “suppression of speech” (about which listeners had possibly already known), we attempted to validate his claim that sales of Goya Foods products had spiked because of Ocasio-Cortez alone — which was big if true. Our searches were unsuccessful.

Niche Business News About Goya in July 2020 and Other Factors

The New York Post published a July 19 2020 article (“Boss of Goya Foods quietly quashes agreement to sell part of company”) alluding to possible underlying motives on Unanue’s part. Of his controversial statements, the Post reported that the timing had “sparked speculation within Goya’s founding family about the intention behind Robert Unanue’s statement of support for Trump,” adding:

“I don’t think it was a coincidence,” said one source close to the family, whose patriarch, Don Prudencio Unanue, founded the Jersey City, NJ-based company in 1936 after emigrating from Spain. “All of a sudden there is going to be a shareholder vote and here he is, saying this stuff about Trump.”

[…]

It’s the second time in less than a year that Unanue’s job was saved after a deal to sell the company was scuttled. As first reported by The Post, Goya was in talks to sell a controlling stake to the Carlyle Group last fall [2019] in a deal that also would have replaced him as CEO. But Goya denied the sale talks at the time and changed its mind at the last minute, according to sources.

“This was supposed to be a control transaction … and the family apparently changed its position in the last couple of weeks,” Carlyle co-founder David Rubenstein said in a Nov. 25 [2019] interview on Fox Business.

Unanue, who owns less than a 5 percent stake in Goya, saved his job last week by bowing to demands from two key shareholders and adding two independent directors to the family-controlled board, sources said. When Unanue agreed to add the independent directors, key shareholders switched their votes and the BDT deal was scrapped, according to a source.

[…]

A source close to the founding family, however, insisted that Goya itself doesn’t take political views and isn’t aligned with Trump.

That story indicated that Goya Foods had reported a brief spike in sales after Trump family members (and Trump himself) endorsed the brand, but it ended quickly:

Goya sales spiked during the days after the White House meeting, but a source close to the family noted that the hashtags #BoycottGoya and #Goyaway have since gained traction. Some members fret that the brand could suffer in the long run because of Trump’s tough stance on immigration and his infamous 2015 assertion that Mexico was exporting “rapists” to the US.

Slate.com took that analysis further in August 2020, in an article headlined, “Did Goya’s CEO Imperil the Company on Purpose?” Quoting the New York Post‘s mergers reporter Josh Kosman, Slate observed:

A [proposed] buyout would make the Unanues even richer than they are now. But after waffling for a while, Goya killed the sale, according to Josh’s sources, because a faction of the family—and in particular Bob—wasn’t ready to give up day-to-day control. A second buyout effort came just this summer from an investment bank called BDT Capital Partners. Again, a buyout would have removed Bob Unanue from his role as CEO of Goya. The many members of the extended Unanue family took a vote, and they tentatively approved a sale that would bring them a huge windfall.

Kosman picks up the story from there: “Then Bob, who was already invited to the White House, surprises everybody and makes his public announcement in the Rose Garden—you know, we are so lucky to have President Trump. People whom I’ve spoken to, who have direct knowledge of the situation, think Bob is not an idiot. Bob knew, when he said that, it was going to cause a kerfuffle. So he was doing it essentially to shake things up, possibly to save his job. And it kind of worked.”

It worked, according to Josh’s sources, because it put the future of Goya in doubt. With one seemingly off-the-cuff remark, Unanue made the brand toxic to some of its most loyal customers, and sure enough, the deal fell through. A controversy like this makes it harder to sell the company because, Kosman says, “now you can’t predict what’ll happen. Do you necessarily, as a buyer, want to be associated with a brand that is hated? You might not want to be associated with a brand like that. I would imagine five years from today, however Goya does, we’re going to remember this moment that Bob praised the president, and Goya, to a degree, will be identified with that.”

Citing “insiders,” not “outsiders,” Kosman elaborated:

What Kosman’s sources are theorizing is that Unanue is attempting a very delicate bank shot. He’s betting that he can damage Goya’s reputation just enough to kill the sale and save his job and keep the company in family control, but not damage Goya so much that the brand is permanently ruined. It’s a wild combination of boardroom politics, family dysfunction, and culture war.

On August 11 2020, NBC News examined the fiscal impact of the Goya boycott independently, not relying on statements nor anecdotes, and noting that Goya’s chief executive officer was not nearly as talkative a month after the controversy:

However, despite four weeks [between July 10 and August 11 2020] on the public stage, just $10 million of that free marketing was positive — and the brand received $47 million worth of negative publicity, Apex Marketing Group told NBC News. The remaining $35 million was neutral.

Promotion from a sitting president can give brands millions of dollars in media exposure, Eric Smallwood, president of Apex Marketing, said. However, “The overall reaction of support of that product/brand will likely be impacted with a variety of consumer reactions, which could affect immediate or future sales or marketing campaigns.”

Sales figures for the privately held brand were not available and Goya declined to return calls and emails for comment.

NBC News’ national coverage in August 2020 would have been a good time to disclose the astonishing sales spike, had any such increase occurred. However, both Goya and Unanue declined the opportunity to praise AOC for that purported massive windfall of sales dollars.

That publicity came on the heels of what was already a strong early 2020 for Goya. NBC News added that 2020 brought with it an increased demand for shelf-stable items like Goya’s canned beans, and that the New York Times reported a 400 percent sales spike in March 2020:

Goya has been a big beneficiary this year of consumers’ increased desire for cans and packages of beans. Bean consumption was already on the rise as consumers increasingly shun meat in favor of other protein sources. Then the pandemic hit, and households stocked up. Goya reported that sales of some bean varieties rose by as much as 400 percent, The New York Times reported in March [2020].

Nielsen, which includes sales of Latin foods in its grocery tracking, noted that revenue from bean sales in the U.S. rose by 51.1 percent during the 19 weeks through July 11 [2020], versus the year prior.

Thanks to 2020 and all it brought with it, Goya’s sales were already up before Ocasio-Cortez ever tweeted about the brand. NBC News also obtained sales figures from adobo-selling rivals, two of whom also reported sales spikes after the Goya controversy:

Meanwhile, some rival brands are seeing positive momentum in the days since the Goya boycott. Bill Penzey, chief executive of Penzey’s Spices, headquartered in Milwaukee, told NBC News that his products have seen a boost in interest since the Goya boycott and that he’s considering launching a new Puerto Rican-style Adobo later this year [2020], in part to capitalize on the current opening for alternative spice brands.

“Of the 412 items that we sell, our Adobo seasoning was 75th in popularity and in the week since [the Goya boycott], it’s moved to 40th,” he told NBC News at the time of the boycott [in July 2020].

[…]

Steve Sando, president of heirloom bean seller Rancho Gordo, based in Napa, California, told NBC News that sales are already up 150 percent this year — but “this just adds to it,” he said, adding that he saw sales spike by between 7-10 percent in the wake of the Goya fracas.

Social media didn’t forget about the boycott of Goya and move on quickly, either. In August 2020, model Chrissy Teigen made headlines after she was “caught” using Goya products — prompting significant backlash on social media.

In October 2020, food industry outlet Food Dive reported on Goya’s fundamentals and 2020 sales, citing far more modest numbers prior to the boycott (and not yet mentioning the latter part of 2020):

In a statement announcing the expansion of the Texas facility, Goya said it is seeing “increased consumer demand for our products from all consumers across the United States and abroad.” Nielsen data previously sent to Food Dive backed up the company’s claim that demand for the products it sells is skyrocketing. Beans – one of Goya’s broadest segments – posted 82.1% growth and rice sales increased 84.5%​ for the nine weeks ended June 1 [2020].

As is often noted in the debate over whether a boycott helped or harmed Goya’s sales, the company is privately held and claims about its sales performance are difficult to confirm. But the October 2020 report excerpted above cited far more modest increases in the 80 to 85 percent range, and attributed those figures to stay-at-home orders in the first half of 2020.

Finally, an October 2020 puff piece by Fox Business (“How a Goya boycott led to a ‘buycott'”) would have been a perfect opportunity for Unanue — who was quoted directly — to showcase and spread his claim. However, in lieu of numbers, Unanue and Fox Business provided adjectives for the October 2020 update on Goya’s financial health post-boycott (or “buycott”):

Company sales have been “fantastic” and “historic” following the controversy surrounding his positive comments for President Trump in July, according to CEO Robert Unanue.

“Our sales went up significantly since the pandemic,” Unanue told FOX Business’ Stuart Varney. “We did well because the restaurant business declined 70% but we also did well because of the backlash of a boycott to a buycott. We have our traditional customers, we kept them, but we also have new customers.”

[…]

As the New Jersey-based company continues to see a significant growth in sales since the clash, its CEO continues to stand by President Trump and conveyed his blessings for his COVID-19 recovery.

Unanue told Varney, “In a little bit more than a week, he’s dancing ‘YMCA’ in incredible energy and encouraging all of us. This is sent from God, and we need to put God back in our country. We are one nation, under God. If we’re not under God, we are not indivisible.”

So, Did AOC Receive Goya’s Employee of the Month Award for Boosting Sales of Goya by a Thousand Percent?

Although the claim was unverified (and appears to be exaggerated), there was also a tremendous amount of context absent from most viral articles.

All the posts, tweets, commentary, and articles reiterating Unanue’s claim about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez becoming Goya’s “employee of the month” for sending sales skyrocketing thanks to a purported attempted boycott, no one seemed to address whether the claim had any validity. Goya’s nature as a privately held company meant that figures were not readily available — and plenty of reporting noted that stay-at-home orders caused modest spikes in sales for companies like Goya in early 2020. While Unanue prefaced his claims with “I don’t know if you heard this,” he didn’t seem to have ever alluded to those figures or praised AOC before, even in an October 2020 Fox Business interview where he described “fantastic.” Finally, business reporting not long after the July 2020 boycott made news included some speculatation that Unanue acted deliberately to avert a merger, possibly to introduce uncertainty and put business interests off a sale which may have threatened his position.