Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 11
A taste of the American dreamCarnicerias reach out to new customers as they grow and expand
BY FRANK GONZALES
Carne fresca 100% de res, puerco, chorizo, pollo, chivo, cabeza de res*. The fresh meat sits neatly arranged at a counter in Abad Barrera’s Carniceria El Amigo Abad in the Williams Bros Shopping Center on Main Street in Santa Maria.
His is one of several carnicerias—Mexican butcher shops—that can now be found all over Santa Maria, the state, and the nation. Acting for years as local agoras in Hispanic neighborhoods, these aren’t typical butcher shops. In addition to the meats carried in the deli, most carnicerias sell fresh vegetables, Mexican snack foods, beers, sodas, all the spices and seasonings a chef could ask for, tortillas, and Mexican breads. Many of them—El Amigo Abad included—also have a hot food counter that serves up burritos, tacos, and other delicious dishes.
Most of these businesses are family owned and are perfect examples of immigrants striving to attain the American dream. Thanks to their hybrid business model, exotic products, and highly competitive pricing, and a modern U.S. shift toward fresher, healthier foods, these businesses are thriving and beginning to expand their clientele to include non-Hispanic communities. A generation of open-minded Americans raised on multiculturalism and organic foods is beginning to seek out fresh new tastes of their own.
El Amigo Abad represents a small business’s approach to cornering this growing market. With an already strong customer base in the Hispanic community and a location that lends itself to heavy and diverse traffic, Barrera’s shop is perfectly positioned to attract new customers. Along these lines, he recently began to advertise his business in English for the first time.
“In 20 years, we’ve always done advertising in Spanish. This is the first year that we ever have done something in English, and it happened to be with the Sun,” Barrera said over the sound of a chopping meat cleaver. “I’m trying to target the Anglo, English-speaking community and readership.”
While the majority of his clients speak Spanish, a growing number solely speak English. Barrera said the current breakdown of his customers is roughly “Spanish-speaking only, maybe 50 percent,” with “about 20 percent bilingual and about 30 percent Anglo descent.” By disseminating advertisements in English, Barrera hopes to boost attention in the latter two groups especially. To keep these new customers once they walk in the door, he’s planning to carry more American products. This way, when visitors step in to look around for the first time, they can find some of the goods they already buy from other stores—“just so I can kind of give the American people, the Anglos, a little bit of what they’re looking for as well.”
One of the main reasons Barrera’s customers keep coming back is the high-quality level of service they receive, which he said differs from many corporate market chains.
“When people walk in, they’re not treated as strangers. They’re actually treated as a family member,” he said.
He clearly wasn’t exaggerating: During the interview for this story, he was approached no fewer than five times by customers who wanted to say hello
Barrera also stressed the importance of keeping the store spotlessly clean. At the core of his philosophy toward his customers is a classic tenet of the service industry: “The customer is always right. Whatever the customers asks for—that’s what they get.”
Barrera sees Mexican customers come from all over that country, explaining that they hail from “basically all of Mexico: Oaxaca, Michoacán, Jalisco, so a little bit of everywhere.” Usually this diversity brings stability to his business throughout the year, as immigrants from different regions visit Mexico at different times and are often involved in different types of work. The exception is the large group of migrant farm workers who come into Santa Maria for three to four months for the annual strawberry picking season. In that span, Barrera said, he sees a significant increase in business. As to why these workers leave after the season, Barrera said, “Some of them do go to Mexico, but for the most part a lot of the groups, when the strawberries are here they’ll come here, and then when the lettuce is harvesting in Arizona, that group of people goes to Arizona and works, and they just kind of tour year-round … wherever the product is.”
Having now operated a carniceria in Santa Maria for 20 years, Barrera knows just about everything there is to know about running such a business. El Amigo Abad has been in its current location for six years. Before coming to America, Barrera, the inveterate entrepreneur, also operated a similar business in Mexico City.
“When I was 16 or 17, with my own money, I opened up a carniceria in Mexico for five years,” he said.
He draws on his experience for every facet of his business. He said he believes in managing his 12 employees by example. Most of the time, he’s “back there working,” he said, pointing to the fresh meat counter.
“I love being the butcher, because when I’m cutting the meat, I can just see and smell its freshness,” he added.
Of all his products, it’s the namesake “carne” of which Barrera is most proud. His meat counter clearly displays Harris Ranch signs, revealing that he carries meat from that renowned ranch in central California.
“Everybody knows Harris Ranch, and they know it’s top-quality food, and that’s why I only carry that, just because I give customers quality,” Barrera said.
And while El Amigo Abad does carry processed snack foods—tamarindos candies; cacahuates, which are Mexican peanuts; the brand Sabritas, which are chips that come from Mexico—and Mexican beer and sodas, those aren’t the most popular items. Most of his customers, who shop once a week, buy fresh food, especially meat and locally sourced produce.
“Everything comes fresh, so [sales are] about 90 percent raw food and the deli, and 10 percent hot food,” he explained.
Since the carniceria’s emphasis on raw or “whole” foods dovetails with the organic food zeitgeist spreading across much of this country, the motivation behind such focus at places like El Amigo Abad makes sense.
“[Customers] like [food] prepared from scratch, just because they get a better taste from the food,” Barrera said.
This philosophy is common in many parts of the world, perhaps most famously in France, where fresh, local foods were never eclipsed by processed foods or produce grown on mega farms hundreds of miles away. Regarding his customers’ tastes, Barrera said, “Part of it does come from Mexico—the way they live over there and cook over there—but for the most part it’s just their taste buds, how even if they eat a hamburger they want to make sure that it has flavor, not just any type, but they like the flavor that they get doing it from scratch.”
At most carnicerias, taste and tradition are the driving factors behind selling fresh, unprepared foods, not worries about organic and sustainable foods. Bridging this gap—given that both carnicerias and organic markets like Whole Foods often end up selling similar things—could be a source of new growth for businesses like El Amigo Abad.
Yet, despite the opportunities for growth his increasing success could allow, Barrera is content with his solitary carniceria, saying, “I’m comfortable with only one [location], just because I put more effort and more quality into the one.”
In any discussion of California carnicerias, the rapid-growth-embracing elephant at the opposite end of the room is the Vallarta Supermarkets chain, which opened a location in Santa Maria in 2011. District Manager Luciano Mendez noted that the chain now has 42 locations in California, six of which he oversees. Since its founding as a lone carniceria not dissimilar from El Amigo Abad in 1985, Vallarta has opened more than one store per year on average. The Santa Maria location alone has 210 employees who work under Store Manager Sergio Gonzalez.
As with many carnicerias, Vallarta Supermarkets have a different aesthetic in how the products are presented and in the way the store is decorated. Walking into a Vallarta is like walking into a party.
“We’re trying to offer, more than anything, an experience, a shopping experience,” Mendez said of the bright décor. He noted a number of colorful destinations in Mexico that acted as inspiration, such as Puerta Vallarta, and said that many customers have even compared the feeling to Disneyland.
Apart from the scenery, Mendez said the company carries nearly everything that can be found in a Vons or Ralphs, and a host of other items. As with El Amigo Abad, Mendez said, “Fresh, for us, is No. 1.” In addition to the fresh produce, Vallarta also has hot food ready to eat, including chicken cooked on a machine shipped from Italy that can rotisserie and grill simultaneously; an entire panaderia, or Mexican bakery, in which everything is made from scratch; a tortilleria, which makes hot tortillas throughout the day; and a full-service meat counter.
“Before we were a supermarket, we were a carniceria,” Mendez said of that last full-service feature. “The owners were butchers.”
The customer base for Vallarta also largely mirrors Barrera’s, with 70 percent speaking Spanish, Gonzalez said.
Fresh ingredients also take center stage here: “The majority of our consumers start from scratch. They grab their tomatillos, their tomatoes, their onions—they start from scratch and then they build it,” Mendez said.
And Vallarta’s customers, too, move around with the harvest seasons. Gonzalez said the grape harvest in September and October usually brings an increase in business, as does the strawberry picking season Barrera noticed.
As for the exploration of a new customer base, Mendez said he’s indeed seen a distinct shift in business: Shoppers are moving toward healthier foods. He said the transition has happened within the Hispanic community, and that it’s also evident in the increasing number of Americans from other backgrounds now shopping at the store.
“People are thinking greener. They’re buying fresher products. They want to eat healthier, so we also have to move along with them,” Mendez said. “So we’re noticing, like on a Wednesday when our produce is on special, we see all types of people in here: Asian, white, whatever you name—they’re here along with the Hispanic consumer.”
To take advantage of this shift, Vallarta has been changing the products it carries to suit the tastes of the customers in each location.
“That, I think, is what is important: that we adjust to where we’re at,” Mendez said.
When asked if Vallarta would ever open a store in a community that wasn’t Hispanic, Mendez said, “It’s not out of the question.” He followed up by saying they’re looking into Santa Barbara.
While Vallarta continues to grow, its owners and managers aren’t blind to the same dangers of expansion that give Barrera pause.
“We still have that home feeling. We don’t have that ‘corporate’ world yet,” Mendez said. He added that most of their business comes via word of mouth, not advertising. Still, despite their humble origins and down-to-earth philosophy, Vallarta’s rise hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“When Walmart and those people are trying to target you, I think we kind of … got their attention,” Mendez said, referring to the mega-chain’s planned expansion into the grocery business in Santa Maria and elsewhere.
The growth of such businesses also hasn’t surprised city officials, especially in places like Santa Maria, which boast a large Hispanic population and carnicerias for many years.
“[Carnicerias] have been a part of Santa Maria … especially over the last 10 years. As the Hispanic population has grown, naturally they have grown as well,” said Dave Cross, director of the Economic Development Commission for the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce.
Despite the markets’ growth, he noted that it’s still difficult to bring such businesses into his organization, despite the chamber’s frequent efforts. It seems carnicerias still have a ways to go in availing themselves of English-speaking resources, a fact this reporter discovered in attempting to set up interviews with more carniceria owners.
Nevertheless, Cross said, “as more people are in town, more people shop and the competition is greater. … [Carnicerias] are going to do more outreach and try to bring in everyone they can to accommodate as many shoppers as they can. I think that’s a great thing. Competition is never bad for a shopper—it’s always beneficial.”
Cross is confident carnicerias will eventually contribute greatly to the chamber’s operations, like any other registered business.
“I think, in the future, you are going to see more of them becoming involved as Santa Maria grows and we get all kinds of shoppers in town,” he said.
Cross also thinks the recent trend of carnicerias expanding to the English-speaking market will only hasten their wider integration.
Vallarta Supermarkets have taken the idea of the carniceria to its chain-making conclusion. And while, thanks to their size, the chain’s stores are well equipped to attract new customers—including the English-speaking organophiles—it’s in the roots of Vallarta, in markets like El Amigo Abad, that the story of the carniceria, a story about immigrants and the American dream, comes out.
“You work harder here, but you live more comfortably here,” Barrera said.
Life has not always been easy for the business owner: “I have a daughter who doesn’t speak. She was born disabled, so, by raising her—she’s 17 years old—I actually learned a lot in life,” he said.
Barrera is very proud of his daughter and made sure to bring out photos of her that he carries with him. Barrera’s primary motivation in coming to the United States was to make a better life for his family by working hard at something, like so many millions of immigrants before him.
And the results speak for themselves: “I just try to prove to myself that in working hard at something I can pretty much get or have whatever I want and accomplish what my goals are,” Barrera said. “But that goes for anywhere in the world, not just here. Fortunately, I was able to land here, and I love it.”
* Fresh meat 100 percent beef, pork, chorizo, chicken, goat, head of beef.
Contact Intern Frank Gonzales at email@example.com.