MADRID

The immigrants who built a fruit empire in Spain

The no-frills business of selling fresh produce has provided a direct route to prosperity for people who came to the country with very little

Lamia Azzi, the daughter of the Moroccan owners of Frutas Azahara, at the company warehouse.
Lamia Azzi, the daughter of the Moroccan owners of Frutas Azahara, at the company warehouse.KIKE PARA

The woman wearing a hijab and sitting in front of a computer at an impressive three-meter-long desk is Azahara Arif. When she arrived in Spain from Morocco in 1990 at the age of 26, she cleaned houses and took care of children. Three years later she met her husband, Mouhy Eddine Azzi, in Fuenlabrada, a city located southeast of Madrid. He was working as a laborer in a market garden and subsequently lent a hand in the stores that they began to set up with their savings. First they opened a cafeteria, then a butcher’s shop. All the businesses were named Azahara, after her. Finally they opened a fruit and vegetable store in 2001 that would hit the jackpot: today, Frutas Azahara has a chain of 41 stores, almost all located in the Madrid region. “My husband is very much in love with my name,” jokes Azahara from her spacious office at the company’s headquarters in Griñón, 35 kilometers south of the capital.

The couple now oversee a small empire built from scratch with an annual turnover of €28 million and 250 employees. It is a demanding business that involves long days from 3am to 10pm, but it has provided them and other immigrants like them with a springboard to a better life in Madrid. Several of these businesses have evolved into chains with dozens of stores. The main players are Frutas Azahara; Don Fruta, founded in 2008 by three friends of Chinese origin; and Dhaka Frutas, also set up in 2008 and run by Alamin Miha, who is from Bangladesh.

This line of business is one that Spaniards have increasingly turned their backs on due to lack of enthusiasm from the younger generation, which is put off by the strenuous nature of the work.

Azahara Arif and her husband have had an easier time convincing their daughter Lamia, 24, to join them. Lamia speaks four languages, holds two master’s degrees, and is now the financial director of the family business. She is extremely ambitious and plans to continue opening stores in other provinces as well as moving into online sales – something that the recent months of confinement has pushed up the agenda. Like her parents, she is a reserved person, although unlike them she finally agreed to be photographed. While all three are embarrassed by the unsolicited attention, Lamia is proud of her parents and is easily persuaded to tell their story; she says she hopes that their example will serve as an inspiration to others who come to Spain with little besides their dreams.

“If someone just told me about it, I would find it unlikely, but I have seen it with my own eyes,” she says, adding that she was already accompanying her parents to the market garden in Griñón at the age of three. “I would like to encourage anyone with a project in mind not to give up. You can achieve whatever you want if you are motivated.”

For these fruit and vegetable entrepreneurs, the key to success has been hard work but also expansion. Until the turn of this century, there were no fruit vendors with dozens of stores. But in the past 20 years the competition has gotten tougher. The boom in immigration also brought many young people to Spain who saw an opportunity in the sector. The stores are relatively easy to set up as they require few permits and little investment. All that is needed is a place to rent, a set of scales and the will to get up at the crack of dawn to buy the fresh produce in the wholesale market, Mercamadrid. The hardest part is having to then stay in the store until the end of the day.

The bigger businesses have a competitive edge. With more stores, they are able to buy more fruit in Mercamadrid at lower prices; it’s not the same buying 10 boxes of peaches as 10 crates. Consequently, they have been able to survive in an increasingly challenging market, made more so by large supermarket chains moving into city centers and residential zones in the form of “express” outlets that sometimes operate 24 hours a day. There is no official census of fruit and vegetable stores in Madrid, but according to estimates by retailer associations, there are about 2,000 in the region and 1,300 in the capital.

The economic crisis is currently seeing all kinds of stores in Madrid shut their doors, but new fruit and veg stores keep appearing in the vacated premises. Many are run by immigrants hoping to strike it lucky. In a process of trial and error, they open and close and open again until they find someplace where the business takes off.

If a small operation sets up close to a chain, the competition can be too much. But the larger businesses have an unspoken agreement to respect each other’s turf. “I’m not interested in going into another group’s territory because it can end up in a price war,” says Miguel Salido, the general director of Don Fruta, which boasts a network of 70 franchises that buy from their 6,800-square-meter warehouse in Getafe.

Salido worked as an IT specialist in Mercamadrid until 2010, when he was approached by Don Fruta’s three partners, Wang Xianyong, Zhu Yongwei and Yang Xiabobo. All three were about 20 years old at the time and had just arrived in Madrid. Ten years later, their turnover is €22.7 million. “They have made it through sheer hard work,” says Salido, 53. “The three of them are lifelong friends who went to school together.”

There are a handful of stores run by Spaniards, but even these few are thinking of throwing in the towel. “It could be two weeks from now, if someone with money comes along,” says Julio García Vivas, 57, who runs the Ay Madre la Fruta chain. He and his cousin, Alfredo García, are third-generation fruit sellers, but they don’t have anyone from the next generation to take over their 28 Madrid-based fruit and vegetable stores.

Some veteran fruit vendors have tried to make the work more attractive to their potential successors by lobbying Mercamadrid to change its hours so they can start the day later, but to no avail; the authorities don’t want food distributors coinciding on the road with the morning rush hour.

As well as its fruit and veg stores, Frutas Azahara also operates as a producer and wholesaler out of a large warehouse in Griñón, where restaurant owners and other stores come to buy their fresh produce. Some of it is imported from Morocco – their watermelons from Agadir and Zagoura are particularly successful – and some is cultivated on several hectares of land on the outskirts of Griñón.

The owner, Mouhy Eddine Azzi, impressed Mercamadrid’s businessmen from the start because it was obvious that he knew what he was doing. “They are reliable, meticulous people and that is very important because it’s a product that gets spoiled,” says Andrés Suárez, an official at Asomafrut, the association of wholesalers in Mercamadrid. “He knows the sector, has invested in production and makes good decisions. They are an example of the great things that good work can lead to.”

The owner of Ay Madre la Fruta agrees. “The basis of this business is hard work, and it is clear that no one has given these people anything on a plate,” he says.

On the second floor of Frutas Azahara, the administrative staff have their heads down while the founders allow themselves the luxury of a shorter day. Azahara Arif says that her husband had a heart attack recently and, at 63, now clocks off after a seven-hour shift, allowing himself a little free time to enjoy what he and his wife have built up.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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