Nathaniel Calhoun, a white missionary kid born in Mexico City, first learned to wheel and deal by hawking lemons door-to-door. He climbed trees, shook down unripe lemons, and then rolled a log over them so they'd be soft enough to sell.
At 17 Calhoun left Mexico and arrived in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he put his business savvy to use. Calhoun is now in his early 50s. Along with his two brothers-together they're "three Gringos with God's favor"-he employs 85 people at his Mexican food distribution company, Purple Crow. Most of the employees are first-generation Hispanics.
At their family reunion Saturday in Winston-Salem, Calhoun's mother-in-law said, "Anytime you go with Nat …"-his father-in-law finished the sentence-"… it's an adventure."
Calhoun, known to his family as "Uncle Nat," just put more chili powder on his watermelon.
Calhoun's Mexican connections have served him well. North Carolina has a 9.5 percent unemployment rate, the fourth highest in the country. With small businesses serving as the biggest U.S. job creator, does the future of the American economy depend on adventurous and well-connected uncles like Nat Calhoun?
Calhoun met what he calls "the first Hispanic pilgrims" to North Carolina in 1986. The Calhoun brothers started a landscaping business they called Grass Busters, toiling in red T-shirts from 7 a.m. till dark. Their first Mexican employee, Pépe, a rail-thin man with no family, "worked like a mule," according to Calhoun. Pépe, though, tore his own apartment to pieces, burned down part of a horse ranch, and was arrested and eventually deported.
But the Mexicans kept coming. Soon the brothers had 30 employees who wired most of their money back home to Mexico. They worked so hard that Calhoun had to tell them to take breaks.
"This business is about relationships," Calhoun said. "It was never them-and-us."
Most of the employees had worked at tortilla factories while in Mexico, so the brothers decided to phase out Grass Busters and take advantage of the workers' skill and make tortillas. Their slow tortilla equipment, Calhoun said, "was the equivalent of mowing the grass with a Weed eater." But the tortillas sold so fast they never required refrigeration. The brothers peddled them to Mexican stores that sold boots, tortillas, and phone cards. Now the company sells other non-perishable food items like dry beans, soap, cookies, and beverages, along with a private line of dairy products.
Calhoun said that God put the Mexicans here, and that doing business with them has opened ministry opportunities. He cites the case of Gabriel, a former employee from Mexico whom the jail wouldn't keep because of his dialysis treatments. Gabriel comes by the office about once a month and shows Calhoun the lump on his chest.
"It's hard to say no to a dying man," Calhoun said. Gabriel brings corn cakes to the brothers as thanks for their financial help.