BROOKLYN, New York–In the neighborhood of Sunset Park, two young mothers from Puebla, Mexico, step through unmarked, lime-green doors into a small room lined with aluminum chairs. There’s a bar in the corner, but it doesn’t serve cocktails.
They’ve come to an Herbalife® nutrition club. Herbalife sells nutritional supplements and weight-loss products through “independent distributors” around the world. These vendors sell Herbalife products directly to their friends and neighbors, and though the company does not operate through a typical pyramid scheme, people earn a commission if they bring on new distributors. In the U.S., a quarter million people, or 64 percent of the company’s distributors, are Latino.
At this club in Sunset Park, the distributor, who is originally from Mexico (and would not provide his name because the company instructs its distributors not to publicize the clubs – even by hanging signs outside) ushered the women inside and then served each of them the basic nutritional package – cold aloe water, hot raspberry tea and a cookie-flavored protein shake – all for $4.
One of the women, Mrs. García, explained she was there as a customer and potential distributor. “People we know invited us to become distributors because we were looking for work. Maybe eventually we will, but we’ve got to try it first,” she said.
Herbalife has become a fixture in immigrant communities like Sunset Park, thanks in part to the nutrition clubs – a business model developed by distributors in Zapotecas, Mexico that has sprouted 50,000 clubs around the world. They function like social clubs, helping new neighbors and friends meet. Herbalife also targets Latinos by sponsoring soccer teams in the U.S. and Mexico.
“Actually this is a Latino company,” said Herbalife spokesperson Marco Gonzales. “It’s a cultural phenomenon.”
With the help of Latino distributors, Herbalife netted $2.3 billion in 2009, almost matching its record year, 2008, when net sales were $2.4 billion.
“In times of recession we’ve had a lot of success because we provide an alternative source of income,” Gonzales said, explaining that it costs just $87.95 for the starter kit necessary to become a distributor.
The company attracts immigrants not only because of its low start-up cost, but because it doesn’t check the immigration status of distributors. They only have to provide a tax identification number and pay taxes on the income, said Gonzales.
But the average distributor actually only makes about $2,400 a year, according to company data for 2009, and they risk incurring fines for serving food without the right permits. Recently, in Passaic, New Jersey, health inspectors fined a distributor named Isabel Carmona $850 for violating health and zoning regulations after neighbors complained about people coming and going from her home, where she ran a nutrition club.
And some Latinos are becoming critical of Herbalife, claiming the company pushes distributors to buy thousands of dollars’ worth of products, which in the end they can’t sell. A man who gave his name as Luis, in Westchester County, NY, claims he lost $30,000 in savings on Herbalife products. Luis is trying to dissuade other immigrants from being taken in by Herbalife representatives’ success stories. “At the conventions you have mothers sleeping with their children in the halls of the hotel – they can’t afford a room – but they’re there out of love for Herbalife,” he said. “They come from small towns and they’re uneducated.”
Still, Herbalife remains hugely popular in this region among immigrants who, like many Americans, are looking for a way to lose weight and stay healthy. In Sunset Park, in the space of 10 blocks, there are at least four nutrition clubs, and the largest attracts between 60 and 80 clients – or “members” – a day.
“Sometimes people will notice we’re overweight and say, ‘look, try Herbalife and you’ll see – it will help,'” said Mrs. Garcia, as she drank a protein shake in her favorite club recently. “We feel the difference in our bodies and our systems,” she promised.
This story was originally reported for El Diario/La Prensa.