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An unfamiliar opportunity turns into a family-run market chain

Miguel Gonzalez Reynoso, president of the growing Northgate Gonzalez Markets, hadn't planned on owning a market, but took a chance.

January 26, 2014|By Ronald D. White
  • Miguel Gonzalez Reynoso of Northgate Gonzalez Markets hadn’t planned on running a market, but he and his father took at chance in 1979. Now, the family-owned chain has more than 30 stores and counting.
Miguel Gonzalez Reynoso of Northgate Gonzalez Markets hadn’t planned… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Miguel Gonzalez Reynoso, 63, is co-president of Northgate Gonzalez Markets, a chain of family-owned supermarkets in Southern California. Its first store was small, a 2,500-square-foot market that opened in Anaheim in 1980.

Recognize a good name: That store on Anaheim Boulevard took over space formerly occupied by a market called Northgate. The family couldn't afford to change the sign, so it kept the name. Now, he's happy they did. "We came to think of Northgate as the door of opportunity for us, coming from the south," said Gonzalez Reynoso, whose large family, with 13 brothers and sisters, hails from Mexico's Jalisco state. "For us, it has a big meaning."

A father's inspiration: Gonzalez Reynoso's father, Miguel Gonzalez Jimenez, ran a shoe factory in Jalisco. It closed, and Gonzalez Jimenez came to the U.S. in January 1968. For years, Gonzalez Reynoso and his father worked for others, including at a now-defunct wire and metal fabricating company. One day in 1979, over lunch, "my father said, 'We've got to do something. This is going to be my last chance to do anything.'"

Opportunity knocks: The initial plan was to buy an apartment building. The duo hadn't thought about running a grocery store until a real estate agent suggested a property that had been sitting unsold for a year, its price reduced 40%. "I think you might be the right guys for this," Gonzalez Reynoso recalled the agent saying. The son was 30 and the father was 53.

Burn the ships: A favorite Gonzalez Reynoso motto is the command to "burn the ships" that 16th century Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes supposedly gave his crew some time after landing in Mexico. Although historians might dispute exactly how the ships were destroyed, the idea behind the command is to fully commit to a venture. "There's no going back," Gonzalez Reynoso said. "You have to be willing to risk everything." That meant risking all of the equity in his home and his parents' house.

Thinking big: At first, the market was a way to provide jobs for the family. But the chain kept growing; now there are 38 Northgate Gonzalez Markets in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, with more than 5,000 employees. The company said it did about $700 million in sales in 2013, an increase over 2012. Construction has begun on a South L.A. retail center that will include a Northgate Gonzalez market. Two other stores also are in the works.

Expand cautiously: "My father used to always say that anything that isn't growing is dying," Gonzalez Reynoso said. But "we never open a new market until the last one we opened is making a profit."

Competitive edge: It comes down to service and quality when competing with the big chains. "No matter who the customer is, you have to treat them with respect," Gonzalez Reynoso said. "We sometimes might not be the cheapest, but for the quality we sell, it's always going to be a fair price, an honest price. People come back to our stores, and they tell us one of the reasons is the quality of our food, our meats, our produce."

All in the family: As the company has grown, one of the hardest things has been to "preserve the atmosphere of a family-run business." All of the co-owners are family members, including Gonzalez Reynoso's mother, Teresa Reynoso de Gonzalez, 87, and his 12 siblings. Family patriach Miguel Gonzalez Jimenez died in 2009. There are 25 family members, including grandchildren, working at the markets. "People say they feel good about coming to our stores. There's still a family ambience," said Gonzalez Reynoso, who shares the president's job with brother Oscar, 44.

Embrace attention: In 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama visited one of the chain's under-construction sites in Inglewood, calling Northgate Gonzalez Markets an example of the effort to bring healthful foods to low-income communities. The company had received $7.5 million in financing and investment for the store from the California FreshWorks Fund, a coalition of health organizations, banks and grocers that provide money to bring better food retailers to under-served communities. Also in 2012, the Latino Business Chamber of Greater Los Angeles gave Northgate Gonzalez Markets its "Large Private Company" award for excellence.

Staying together: Family members still meet often for lunch and conduct more formal monthly meetings at the company's Anaheim headquarters to discuss business.

Treat employees like family: Gonzalez Reynoso said he tries to let every employee know he or she has a chance to succeed and thrive. The company matches employee contributions to a 401(k) retirement plan, offers scholarships for college and pays for employees to learn English.

Personal: Gonzalez Reynoso has little time for hobbies. He said his employees have become part of his family. "Sometimes I spend more time with them than my wife," he jokes. "Their problems become my problems." Gonzalez Reynoso lives with his wife, Alicia, in La Mirada. They have six children and 13 grandchildren.

ron.white@latimes.com

Twitter: @RonDWhite

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