One of the Polar facilities in Europe.

Photo: Empresas Polar

The Globalization of Harina P.A.N.

Empresas Polar already has four factories producing the “official” arepa corn flour in Colombia, the U.S. and Italy. Now, they prepare the next step: frozen products and a restaurant franchise

Behind the sprouts of national pride we experience when Hollywood celebs taste arepas or a Venezuelan chef cooks them on a reality show, or the social media joke that we’re conquering the world when we make a partner, friend or coworker love arepas as much as we do, there are strategic decisions and considerable investments from Empresas Polar. That’s how Harina P.A.N. spreads around the world. And, despite what we may think, this hasn’t happened only because of the hostility of the chavista regime: this story started before  Chávez came to power.

Now that the group is celebrating 80 years since the start of its beer production in Caracas a new Harina P.A.N. package was introduced to the Venezuelan marketwith mixed opinions amid the design communitybut the big story is more discrete: the international growth in production and marketing of this product, and not only for the more than 5 million of us living abroad. Empresas Polar seems to want way more than leave its star product under the labelling of “ethnic”. 

“The pre-cooked corn flour has been produced since 1960 in Turmero (Aragua),” says Félix Gastón, global director of the P.A.N. brand, “but the fact is that it’s been exported for many years. In the 1970s, you could find Harina P.A.N. in the Canary Islands, where there were people selling it after purchasing the product in Venezuela, and you can also find it in some Caribbean countries, and in Colombia. This situation led Empresas Polar to consider the acquisition of a production facility in Colombia, when sales there were already important.”

That’s how the production of Harina P.A.N. began out of Venezuela, in 1996, first through an alliance with a Colombian company and then with the construction of a Polar-owned plant near Bogotá, at Facatativá. In the following years, other partnerships were made with companies in the U.S. and Europe, always trying to build production capacity outside of Venezuela, instead of thinking in exporting from the country: the only way of having competitive prices and controlling the supply is to develop production near the target markets. Now, the Colombian plant serves the Latin American market, mostly, but it’s a key asset for the entire process of making the brand international. With the most recent investments, that plant reaches an annual capacity of 140 thousand tons. The new Polar plant in Greenville, Texas, adds 45 thousand tons, and there are two smaller plants in Italy. 

This hasn’t been an easy endeavour. Harina P.A.N. must be produced in gluten-free facilities, with the Polar technology that the company must install everywhere. They can’t use any corn, only the one that complies with the flavor required specifications, which is different from the Mexican corn flour. Polar must adapt every international plant to the local regulations, covering aspects like the use of transgenic corn, for instance.

The Texas-made P.A.N. for Canada is trilingual.

Photo: Empresas Polar

The geography of these facilities has its reasons, Gastón explains: “In Texas, they have a big corn harvest, and we use that plant to serve North America and Asia-Pacific.” In fact, the Harina P.A.N. I buy in Montreal, very easily and priced at around 3 Canadian dollars per kilo, comes from Texas. That plant also has to supply part of the demand from Europe. 

“We’re seeing Venezuelan communities everywhere,” says the global director of the brand. “We have more than 100 in our database, but we know there are more. And we also know that there are non-Venezuelans eating arepas, because arepa has no gluten and it’s very versatile. You can fill it with many things, and the flour can be used in many cuisines. We also want to prove that this product could be used to cook more than arepas, contributing to many other local dishes. Every market is different: being gluten-free could be an attribute in Canada but not necessarily in Nigeria. The common denominator is the taste, and how easy it is to cook with it.”

With the stocking frenzy of the first months of the pandemic, the global demand skyrocketed, before recovering more normal levels. For a while, Harina P.A.N. was consumed a lot among Mexicans, because their traditional corn flour was sold out. However, demand is still bigger in Venezuela, where two plants are producing it, one in Chivacoa (Yaracuy State) and the old plant in Turmero… mostly with imported corn. 

For us Venezuelans, it could be weird that the globalization of P.A.N. goes beyond the arepa and the ritual of cooking it. Félix Gastón explains that the company is coming hard with two new business lines: frozen versions of ready to heat products such as arepas, empanadas and tequeños, that are being sold in Spain as P.A.N. Snack On, produced in a partnership with Casa Mestiza; and the P.A.N. Stores, which started also in Spain, at Madrid’s San Miguel public market, coming soon to the U.S. and Canada. “The snack category is growing because we understood that everyone, Venezuelans included, want very convenient products, a global trend we have learned to adopt,” the executive says. “We’re also pushing our brand in restaurants, and with the P.A.N. Stores, we’ll offer a place where you can see how an arepa or an empanada is prepared, you can purchase our products, you can sit to eat, and listen to Venezuelan music. As soon as the pandemic restrictions are lifted, we’re launching the franchise process.” Just as Colombia did with the Juan Valdéz cafes.

It will be interesting to see, in a few years, how a private brand we Venezuelans tend to see almost as a symbol of the motherland can have a life without us. To be something that’s not only oursin the same way that so many of us are already becoming people who belong to other places, too.

Rafael Osío Cabrices

Journalist and author. His most recent book is Apuntes bajo el aguacero: cien crónicas empantanadas (La Hoja del Norte).