Unsung Heroes

How Customs Broker Roberto Gallegos Moves Liquor Shipments Across the Border

It’s no small feat to manage the passage of alcohol from Mexico into the U.S.

Image of Roberto Gallegos
Photo courtesy of Roberto Gallegos.

In our Unsung Heroes series, we profile behind-the-scenes professionals in the drinks industry who are essential to making businesses function but who don’t normally get the spotlight

At any point during the workday—and sometimes well into the evening—Roberto Gallegos is toggling among a half-dozen or more tasks, switching between Spanish and English as he fields calls, emails, and texts from clients on both sides of the United States–Mexico border.

As a licensed customs broker and freight forwarder, Gallegos is a master multitasker who serves as the liaison between the U.S. and governments, including Mexico and China, and companies that export their products into the U.S. Every day, his firm, Globe Trade Services, Inc., which is based in Otay Mesa, California, a few blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border, oversees dozens of shipments—including spirits like mezcal and tequila, beer, wine, and other liquors—making their way into the U.S.

At every step, Gallegos and his colleagues navigate the head-spinning logistics and alphabet soup of governmental regulatory agencies and the piles of accompanying paperwork, making sure proper documentation, insurance, and licenses are in place; taxes, fees, and invoices are paid; and the products end up in the correct final destination—before they eventually wind up in consumers’ glasses.

“I deal with U.S. Customs, the TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), the FDA—everything you don’t want to deal with,” Gallegos says. “What we do is very specialized. There are not a lot of people out there who do it—or even want to touch it with a 10-foot pole.”

This means that for firms like his, there’s ample opportunity to capitalize on the enormous U.S.-Mexico trade, which in 2016 was estimated at $600 billion. Gallegos says that about 75 percent of his business comes from textile imports, but he’s carved out a niche working with what he calls los chiquitos: small Mexican spirits companies and boutique brands—such as family-owned mezcal producers—that don’t have the in-house resources or knowledge necessary to move their product into the U.S. market on their own.

“I just want to be a part of their dream to at least get their product to the States,” Gallegos says. “The most difficult thing for them, in their mind, is to get it into the U.S. That’s why they like me, because I tell them, ‘I do this every day—don’t worry about it.’”

A native of the San Diego area and a self-described “border dweller,” Gallegos worked for 10 years as the corporate licensed customs broker at the electronics giant Sanyo, before its acquisition by Panasonic. He went on to found Globe Trade Services in 2005; the company currently has seven employees—all bilingual.

I thought, I have enough experience and enough clients, so I basically went for it,” Gallegos says of the decision to start his own company. “It wasn’t like I did a market study or business plan. I bought the computer system, went to the warehouse, got up and running, and we started being profitable in the first month.”

A typical week for Globe Trade Services includes handling about 12 to 15 liquor shipments across the U.S. ports of entry. In addition to the liquor itself, the firm also processes shipments of other products, such as bottles for mezcal from China to the U.S. and then to Mexico, labels made in the U.S. to Mexico (Gallegos says their quality is higher than those made in Mexico), and additional components of the final products that end up on the shelf or in the restaurant. Says Gallegos: “I just cleared some bottle caps for a famous rapper’s bourbon brand. I import the bottles for the bourbon too.”

Gallegos says business comes largely from word of mouth and his longstanding network of contacts on both sides of the border. Working with small, family-owned companies, many of whom have a long history of making their products, is one of the most rewarding aspects of his job. “All liquor has a story,” he says. “They’re putting all their heart and passion into their tequila or mezcal or craft beer or wine. They open their places up to you, and you get to see the product that you move in its birthplace.”

On the other side of the equation, Gallegos’s clients say he provides a “steady hand” in a complex and constantly shifting supply chain. “What we need are people who are responsive and understand the system, and that doesn’t always happen with warehouse managers and trucks breaking down and the red tape of taxes and government regulation,” explains John Bedell, a spirits strategist with T. Edward Wines & Spirits, a New York–based importer and distributor that’s worked with Gallegos on three Mexican spirits brands, with two more to be added soon. “He’s in three places at one time, but he answers [calls] immediately, and he knows what’s going on everywhere. The breadth of what he does and how fast and personable he is are his best assets.”

Indeed, Gallegos says, responsiveness and a deep knowledge of logistics and government regulatory agencies are critical skills for successful customs brokers. For smaller firms like his, personalized service is also essential—especially when he’s the one to relay to a client problems like a shipment delay because of factors he has no control over, such as a no-show truck driver or an unexpectedly long line at the border. Consequently, an important part of his client relations strategy is to manage expectations early in the process.

“I always tell the importer the truth—I learned that many years ago,” Gallegos says. “I always tell them that you never know what can happen at the border. I tell them that there’s a large [chance] nothing will happen, but when it does, don’t say I didn’t tell you.”

And despite the unrelenting challenges of his business, Gallegos strives to go the extra mile for his clients—sometimes to the chagrin of his colleagues, who know he has a hard time saying no when the inevitable urgent call about a hot shipment comes through. It’s all part of a day’s—and often, night’s—work for him.

“I’m 48, but my hair is white—I look like the Mexican Anderson Cooper. That’s the joke they tell me,” he says, laughing. “We shut down at 6 pm, and sometimes customers will be calling you and begging you, ‘There’s a truck that has to cross tomorrow!’ People in my office hate it that I do that. They say I should say no, but that’s too gringo—I don’t like to do that. That’s the extra edge that I give to [customers].”

Blane Bachelor is a lifestyle and travel writer based in San Francisco. Her work regularly appears in New York magazine, Marie Claire, the Washington Post, Hemispheres, and many other publications.

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