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American Sells Tires to Hispanics

November 27, 2001

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ When the local Toyota dealership was too backed up on a recent Saturday to change the oil in his Corolla, Muricio Juarez decided to try out a new auto repair shop.

It wasn’t just the service for his tires and his engine that attracted Juarez to the Todollantas repair shop. It was the chance to do business in the security of his native language.

Tucked behind Buffalo Tire & Car Care on a busy stretch of South Boulevard, Todollantas is the brainchild of owner Dave Yelverton, who wanted to reach the state’s fastest-growing customer base.

Todollantas means ``all tires,″ but oil changes and other repairs also can be done in the shop, where Spanish is the first language. While they wait, they can read La Noticia and other Spanish-language newspapers, or chat with Puerto Rican-born manager Tony Perez.

There are plenty of businesses across North Carolina catering to the growing Hispanic population. What sets Todollantas apart is that is it owned by an English-speaking American who is demonstrating a commitment to a new group of customers, said a marketing expert who works with companies seeking to increase business with Latinos.

``While many corporations recognize the Hispanic market and want to penetrate it, few recognize how to be Latino-friendly,″ said Natan Feldman, president of Natan Feldman & Associates. ``Part of the hesitancy is that they don’t want to alienate their non-Hispanic customers.″

Juarez, who moved to Charlotte from Guatemala six years ago, relished the fact that he could get his car serviced at a shop that speaks his language.

``They need a lot more businesses like this,″ he said, with Perez translating. ``I like them because they treated me very well.″

Yelverton owns the larger Buffalo Tire shop next to Todollantas and several other Buffalo Tire stores in Charlotte. He said his decision to open the Hispanic shop was not an act of altruism.

While customers would receive the same level of service at the Buffalo Tire store, the Hispanic shop has benefits that can’t be replicated in a traditional auto repair shop, Yelverton said.

``At Buffalo, I can’t offer them a comfortable Spanish-speaking environment,″ he said. ``They can read the Spanish-language papers and talk to the manager and mechanics in their native tongue.″

Perez, who has worked for Yelverton for several years, proposed the idea because he felt a lot of potential customers were staying away from stores where they did not feel welcome.

Business at Todollantas is growing slowly. Yelverton didn’t reveal sales figures, but he believes the store’s long-term prospects are appreciable.

Hispanics make up the fastest growing group in North Carolina, increasing 394 percent in the last decade, according to 2000 Census figures. Mecklenburg County’s Hispanic community grew 570 percent, from fewer than 7,000 in 1990 to 44,871 in 2000.

A lot of entrepreneurs have tried to attract all those people and their paychecks.

Along South Boulevard, there are a bakery and several other stores and car lots marked by signs in Spanish. In Mount Airy, about 40 miles northwest of Winston-Salem, the Downtown Cinema shows Spanish-language films once a week.

``We expect 10 percent of the children in the county’s schools to be Hispanic and we felt strongly that we needed to serve this growing population, said Tanya Rees, executive director of the Surry Arts Council, which sponsored the program.

The theater’s concession stand has Spanish labels on the popcorn, soft drinks and candy. Manager Ken White distributes flyers _ written in Spanish, of course _ advertising upcoming movies.

Asked if the shows are well attended, Rees said: ``It’s good enough to keep going with it.

``We need to be patient with it, and it will grow as word spreads. We have more Hispanic people who work in poultry, farming and textile mills,″ she said. ``They used to be more transient, but now more are staying here. And it’s changed our grocery stores and our restaurants.″

For Yelverton, the most difficult part is getting the word out to potential customers. He had taken out ads in La Noticia and gotten on-air endorsements from Radio Lider, the all-Spanish radio station.

Most of his advertising is through word of mouth. Feldman said that’s still a powerful medium in the Hispanic community.

``One satisfied customer can become 20 new customers,″ he said. ``These people see this American company making a commitment to the Spanish community.

``It’s not them saying, ‘I want to see how much money I can get from you.’ It’s ’Let me show you want we’re willing to do to win your business, including hiring a Spanish-speaking manager.‴

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