YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Grabbing a Slice of Latino Sales

Food: Butcher shops are part of a tradition for millions in the Southland. Market chains are moving in and want a prime cut.


It's a daily ritual bordering on the obsessive, she says, but Los Angeles homemaker Marina Lopez can't stay away from her local carniceria.

Every day, she carefully studies the long glass cases filled with fresh meat at the small Westlake neighborhood store. On this particular Wednesday afternoon, her eyes stop at the beef tongue, but she quickly rules it too expensive. After consulting her butcher--her carnicero--Lopez settles on ground chuck that will become her family's dinner of albondigas, a meatball soup.

"Meat should be fresh so that it tastes good," Lopez says, reflecting an attitude she acquired from going to the market every day in her native El Salvador. Carnicerias help her keep the tradition locally, she says.

The Latin-style butcher shops are an essential market stop for millions of local Latinos who know they can find the right carnes for any dish. The shops also are pushing the U.S. food industry to reconsider how fresh meat, particularly beef, is sold in Southern California.

Imitating these niche markets, large and medium-sized supermarket operators across the region are luring carniceria shoppers by stocking such specialized cuts as tripe, goat head and tongue and adding professional butchers to create full-service meat counters that buck the trend toward prepackaged, self-serve, warehouse-style food shopping.

"The Latino consumer is making a huge difference in the meat industry," said Bruce Berven, executive director of the California Beef Council.

Californians spend $5 billion to $6 billion annually on beef, and about a third of that is spent by Latinos, Berven said. Industry market studies also indicate that Latino families eat beef more often (four to five times a week) than the general population (two times a week), and that a higher percentage of Latinos' household incomes is spent on beef than in non-Latino households.

"We like our meat. I can cut back on other things, but I always have money to spend on food. And always with your food you have meat," said Raul Morales, a taco stand owner near downtown L.A. who makes regular trips to carnicerias for his family and for his business.

Believed to have first appeared in the 1930s, carnicerias sprang from the need for fresh cuts of meat like those popular in Mexico. With few such butcher shops in Southern California, immigrant Latino families would travel to family-run stores each week for their grocery shopping but also found them to be cultural havens.

"They would cash their checks there, get to know the butcher, make friends," said Steve Soto of the Mexican American Grocers Assn. Soon immigrant families started opening more carnicerias, and the stores became neighborhood staples with their helpful carniceros.

Also known as mini-markets or convenience stores that specialize in cortes latinos, or Latin cuts, the meat shops have flourished in heavily Latino neighborhoods. The Los Angeles-based Mexican American Grocers Assn. estimates there are about 4,800 independent carnicerias in the state, and the majority of them are in Los Angeles.

But the number of these local carnicerias is shrinking as supermarkets open stores in the same areas.

For the last 15 years, independent chains such as Superior Warehouses, Jon's, Northgate's, Tresierra's and El Tapatio have picked up on the demand for fresh meat and have hired skilled butchers, which has helped push up sales in their meat and produce departments.

The full-service meat counters have become a mainstay at the 14-store Superior chain, where 65% of its customers are Latino. Meat sales make up 16% to 19% of same-store sales, said Phil Lawrence, the company's vice president of meat and seafood operations. Some of the top sellers are milanesa (thin beef sirloin steaks), ranchera (beef flap steak) and diesmillo (boneless beef chuck).

Now, some of the major supermarket chains are working to catch up. Kroger Co., Vons Cos. and Albertson's Inc. have begun adding special meat cuts and hiring butchers in certain stores. Some supermarkets have even added tortillerias, rolling out fresh tortillas, and panaderias, making fresh sweet bread.

"They're growing this trend because the independent retailers have been successful," Soto said.

During the last two years, full-fledged carnicerias have been added to Kroger's Food 4 Less stores in Pomona, Bell Gardens, Pacoima, Highland Park, Westlake and Boyle Heights, said Terry O'Neil, spokesman for Food 4 Less. Carnicerias also have been added to the company's Foods Co stores in Central and Northern California.

Food 4 Less' warehouse-style stores offer low prices in return for less service, he said, so full-service meat counters go against their usual operations. In stores where customers are accustomed to reaching for their own boxes of cereal on top shelves and bagging their own groceries, friendly butchers now customize their meats.

Los Angeles Times Articles