Driving 100 miles for groceries was perhaps a bit extreme, says Flora Ramirez of her past shopping expeditions to Tijuana. But that was the only way the El Sereno resident said she could stock up on many of the familiar foods of her native Mexico--until the Viva supermarket came along.
Now when Ramirez has a yearning for Embasa brand jalapeno peppers or Gamesa cookies, all she has to do is drive a few blocks to the Viva store, a Boys supermarket that has been renamed, restocked and redesigned with Latino shoppers and tastes in mind.
Ramirez frequents the supermarket--decorated in bright splashes of red and green--now more than ever. "It has more Mexican products than ever before," she said.
In large chain supermarkets and the corner grocery stores, once-neglected Latino shoppers have found themselves being wooed by food retailers eager to win the loyalty--and dollars--of one of the nation's fastest-growing ethnic groups.
"You can't do business without carrying Hispanic types of products or having a strong Hispanic presence in your store," said Steve Koff, president of the Southern California Grocers Assn. "You cannot ignore such a large market like that."
Supermarkets that once relegated Mexican products to small, out-of-the way sections now often feature the items near store entrances. Mexican brand names--like Jumex juices, Penafiel mineral water and Ariel detergent--sit side-by-side with their American counterparts.
Produce sections have made room for barrels of dried chilies, 100-pound sacks of pinto beans, cases of cilantro and sweet-smelling mangos. Chorizo, a Mexican sausage, is in plentiful supply at meat counters, as are thin cuts of beef appropriate for carne asada or milanesa.
Signs in Spanish welcome shoppers to stores like Lucky and Ralphs in Latino neighborhoods and point out specials of the day. Stores like Viva and Tianguis, which have been created with Latinos specifically in mind, have strung pinatas from rafters and painted interiors in bold shades of green, yellow and magenta.
The attention being lavished on Latinos has more do with financial self-interest than it does with social awareness. Southern California food stores, which sell about $24 billion worth of goods annually, are continually locked in a battle for customers. And a large percentage of those customers are Latino.
"They wouldn't be doing it if they were not making money," Carlos Garcia, a researcher at Research Resources, said of industry efforts to woo Latinos.
Latinos are particularly attractive to the industry because they tend to have large families and, as a result, tend to spend more at the supermarket. "For every $100 that an Anglo household spends, a Latino household spends $120," Garcia said.
So far, the courtship of the Latino shopper has seen supermarkets follow two different strategies.
One approach is the creation of a market tailored only to Latinos. The seven-store Tianguis chain, which is owned by the same company that operates Vons and Pavilions supermarkets, has set the standard for the industry.
Vons spent 1 1/2 years researching the concept before opening the first store in Montebello in 1987. Among its findings was that Latinos tend to see shopping as a family event that can last for hours. They also tended to buy more fresh produce and meat than Anglo shoppers.
With those and other factors in mind, Tianguis features sit-down areas and patios for eating and talking as well as strolling mariachis for entertainment. Sprawling produce sections occupy as much space as a corner grocery store and meat counters offer everything from ground hamburger to pigs' heads.
"Everything that we do is driven off of what the Hispanic community told us they wanted in the research," said Chris Linskey, Tianguis general manager. He estimates that 95% of the chain's 800,000 weekly visitors are Latino. "We don't take into consideration what the general market wants at all."
Most of the large chains, however, have opted to adapt their basic stores to Latino neighborhoods. Ralphs, for example, will add more Latino products and begin a specialized marketing campaign in neighborhoods that are 35% or more Latino.
"We carry a full assortment of Hispanic items that we wouldn't carry in other Ralphs stores," said Al Marasca, executive vice president of marketing at Ralphs. "Our initial results have been encouraging. We are starting to see sales increases in those stores."
In heavily Latino Boyle Heights, the Ralphs store looks like any of its suburban counterparts. But over the entrance is a sign that reads--"Bienvenidos, Se Habla Espanol." Inside, the ear-splitting cries of mariachis or salsa music pour from the loudspeakers.
Mexican and traditional American supermarket staples are stocked side-by-side. Pepperidge Farm cookies, for example, sit next to Gamesa cookies imported from Mexico. In the deli, bowls of potato and macaroni salad sit next to pig lips and nopalitos, a cactus salad.