Julio Rosa left Cuba for Miami in 1980 when he was only 20 years old with only a few pants and shirts. He began to drive trucks and worked in warehouses to make a living. In the span of four years, he spent every penny he had – $45,000 to buy a company in Opa-locka, known as Nuts About Florida.
Today the firm is valued at $14 million.
“Most Mariel were young single men with a working class background, and an elementary education, many Mariel Cubans faced unemployment, low paid work, and independence,” said Meredith Newman Professor of Public Administration at FIU. “Most ended up working for their compatriots, among other consequences the 1980 exodus deepened the roots between old and new Cubans.”
Born in New York and raised in Cuba, Rosa made his fortune in Miami. Among the tens of thousands who departed Cuba in 1980, his life story is unique. His firm, Nuts About Florida, started with a few cheap bags tied together with a single string but evolved into a conglomerate with revenues around $7.5 million per year. He did little things like building presentation racks from scratch and had a special skill in sales that employees and customers alike say drove his success in making his nuts have become a staple product in Florida grocery stores.
“It was a very gradual process,” said Rosa. “But each step, whether big or small, was one closer to success and one farther away from the poverty I came with.”
Cuban immigrants who arrived in the states in 1980 did not achieve as much as previous generations, many Marielitos were labeled as misfits during that time of the mass immigration, but he is an exception. From a tiny company to an empire, Rosa prevailed through poverty and hardship to get to where he is now.
Rosa’s mom, Thelma Perez Rosa, was born in Remedios Las Villas, Cuba – a small town near the northern coastline of Cuba – and moved to New York in 1954. During this time there were less restrictions for citizens of Cuba to travel freely. Hence, she settled in the Bronx, and found a job in a nearby factory.
Rosa, Thelma’s eldest son, was born there in 1960 and given an American passport. Like some others, the family had faith that Fidel Castro could erase corruption on the island and moved back to Cuba in a boat called “Covadonga” in 1961. Rosa spent his adolescence in Casino Deportivo, a suburb in Havana, Cuba, located near Primelles.
He was a shy kid, very insecure about his appearance, particularly his acne. He would rarely leave his house, remaining close to his family, especially his half-brother Abel Menendez.
“I remember I would ask Julio to go out and play with my friends at the park,” Menendez recalls. “He would always decline and stay helping out my parents. He was just very quiet.”
In 1965, Castro made the Communist Party the leading force in the state and society. This obliterated Thelma’s hope of any kind of favorable change for their country. Soon, the United States became hostile to the regime and there was a lack of medication, food, water, and overall freedom.
“I never felt at home in Cuba,” Rosa said. “There was absolutely no liberty, I always knew I had to leave.”
Thelma made it clear that if her son wanted to leave the country, the family would pack their things and depart with him. It would be easier for them than many others because Rosa, having been born in the United States, had an American passport.
So at age 17, Rosa dropped out of high school and began working to help his family save up for a new life abroad. He was a janitor at a nursing home.
When Rosa turned 20, he and his two brothers and parents moved to Miami. They left with only small suitcases with very little clothing. He also left behind his two older sisters who did not want to leave the country with their young children.
Although Rosa left Cuba in 1980, when thousands left the island in the so-called “Mariel boatlift,” he and his family were able to travel by plane due to his U.S. citizenship.
“When you get to the United States, you can never guess what your life will end up looking like,” he said. “I never had a specific goal in mind on what I wanted to accomplish. Getting to the United States was always my plan, but I knew I had to work.”
Rosa soon found work at Miami International Airport. He collected food trays from airport restaurants and washed them.
The family moved to a small efficiency apartment near Little Havana for about six months. The space was so small, there was only room for one bunk bed and a sofa-bed.
Rosa continued his airport job, but also began working with suppliers to distribute bread and cookies to stores around Miami. He enjoyed talking to customers and convincing them that his hard work and the products he made were valuable.
While working, he also attended night school to learn English and earn his G.E.D.
He saved as much and planned to purchase a dry cleaning business. Then one lucky day, he spotted an ad in the newspaper for the sale of a company called “Nuts About Miami,” a small nut company based in South Miami and owned by Barbera and Phillip Anderson.
In the year 1995, he purchased this firm for $45,000, later having some monetary help from his parents.
Gradually, Rosa began learning the ropes of owning a nut company.
“When I first presented our packaging to a store, they asked me where the ingredients of the products were,” he stated. “I was confused, then they explained to me that it was illegal to not have the ingredients stated on the packaging. So I went back and started including them on all the merchandise, I was learning everything slowly.”
Luis Perez, the warehouse manager of “Nuts About Miami” at the time, has worked with Rosa since the start of the company.
“One day Julio tried getting a rack of our nut products at one of the stores and the manager told him that there was no space for our product,” he said. “He left that store and visited 10 other and got our products in every single one of them. He is a very persuasive man.”
When the company first started, Perez helped Rosa build the company’s racks and products by hand.
“Our packages used to be tied together with a little string,” Perez stated. “Julio was the one who started building store racks and eventually involved everyone in the making of them. The way Julio motivates people to work is incredible.”
Rosa believes a critical step on the firm’s success was selling products outside Miami. In the year 1999, he moved to Orlando for several months to build connections with important stores.
In that year, Rosa changed the name of the organization from Nuts About Miami to Nuts About Florida.
Rosa married his wife, Dinora Rosa, on April 17, 1991. Their daughter, Jennifer Rosa, was born on November 16, 1996. Two years later, their son, Edwin Rosa, was born on September 23, 1998. Rosa’s family has always been supportive of him even when his work was taking time away from them.
“I would tell my wife that when the company reaches $3000 in sales, I’ll stop,” he says. “The company soon reached $3000, and then I said when I get to $10,000, I’ll stop. Soon I was saying $40,000: I never stopped. I will always have more hunger to keep going.”
Rosa disliked that his job would require him to leave for Tampa and Orlando for several months, only coming back to Miami once a week to see his kids.
“If I did not have Dinora by my side taking care of our kids, I don’t know what I would have done. I had no life besides work.”
In the year 2001, Rosa bought a farm in Labelle, Florida with 50 cows and hundreds of chickens to have a place to visit with his children on the weekends he was off. He helped build everything on the farm: a house, their chicken coop, and an outside dining area.
“Now, I go on the weekends with my wife to relax,” he says, “It is peaceful and a way to get my mind off things.”
Rosa’s children are now 24 and 26. Jennifer, his eldest daughter, is working as the Vice President of Nuts About Florida. While his son, Edwin, is graduating from UCF and is currently studying to take a test for medical school.
Jennifer Rosa is very proud of what her father has accomplished.
“Everyday I am gaining experience of someone who is not only hardworking, but is the representation of the American Dream” she said. “We, as kids, sensed his lack of presence in the beginning. He was hustling 24/7 to make sure he could provide for us. When he bought the farm, he was able to set more time aside for us.”
Today, Julio Rosa says his greatest inspiration is his kids.
“I visited Edwin at his university the other day and I was fascinated at how far he has come,” Rosa said. “He is going to become a doctor. He will be someone important– that’s special to me.”
Today, Nuts About Florida is valued at $14 million. Rosa spends his days visiting stores, checking on his products and making sure everything is cooperating smoothly.
“I look back at the company, and it’s nothing like before. Seeing the products in Walmart and Publix is really monumental. The biggest advice I will tell anyone is to never be scared to work. You lose opportunities when you decide to step back and relax. You’ll get to where you want to be.”