Maria Romo is standing in Gigante’s produce section, sifting through the big cardboard box filled with dark green chiles stacked so high that they seem ready to spill onto the ground.
She carefully examines each one before pulling her selections out of the pile and plopping them into the clear plastic bag held wide open by her husband.
Romo says she comes to Gigante for the bargain prices, such as six bolillo bread rolls for $1, or today’s special eight pounds of bananas for $1. Asked if the place reminds her of the beloved Mexico she left 10 years ago, she pauses from her task of selecting chiles and smiles widely, “Si.”
There’s a new twist in Southern California’s always competitive supermarket industry: the growing number of Latino-operated chains that have their eyes fixed not only on the corner mercado, but on Ralphs, Food 4 Less, Albertson’s and all the other area chains that have marketed themselves to the Latino shopper.
Indeed, finding a wide selection of Mexican food products in Los Angeles is not that hard these days. Years ago, the major supermarkets realized that their customers come from various ethnic backgrounds. So grocers have done their best to cater to Latino, Asian and African-American shoppers.
“(Lucky supermarkets) had programs for 10 years that we called ‘Neighborhood Marketing,’ to understand the customers we have,” said Judie Decker, a spokeswoman for Albertson’s, which recently bought the Lucky chain. “We did that through task forces that zeroed in on our customer base. They made trips to Mexico and worked to ensure the products we carried were well known to our customers.”
Ralphs Grocery Co. has a similar merchandising approach. “We cater to whatever community we serve,” said Ralphs spokesman Terry O’Neil. “In a Hispanic neighborhood, we offer a wider variety of items that appeal to the Hispanic shopper.”
That was evident at a Ralphs-owned Food 4 Less store just two blocks from Gigante’s store in Pico Rivera. The produce section had vegetables and spices used in many Latino dishes. There was no bakery that made fresh corn tortillas, but there was a wide selection of pan dulce (sweetened bread that many Mexicans favor).
On one recent evening, the store was packed with Latino shoppers filling their grocery carts with limes, chiles, tortillas and beef. Over in the produce section, Veronica Malvido of Pico Rivera stood sorting through the tomatilloes she needed to make a green posole (corn stew) dish.
She prefers Food 4 Less for its better quality of meat. She also is familiar with the store and where various food items are located, which keeps her coming. “I went over to Gigante once to run in and run out. It looked good. But I got used to coming here,” she said.
Also buying tomatatilloes was Francisca Ramirez, who said she had stopped into Gigante a few times but found the checkout lines too long and the store not as clean as the Food 4 Less.
While shoppers said they enjoy shopping at a store with a wide selection of Latin-American products, their main concern is price (as well as double discount coupons).
Such comments are not lost on the executives at Gigante, which last May opened its first Southern California store in Pico Rivera, a blue-collar town southeast of downtown Los Angeles whose 63,900 population is 80 percent Latino.
Gigante, Mexico’s third largest retailer, moved into a large, boxy store once occupied by Max Foods, another supermarket chain that caters to the Latino sector.
There are some obvious differences from a suburban Ralphs: A dozen different varieties of dried chiles are heaped into large bins. One long wall is lined with cellophane packets of Mexican spices.
Augustina Casillas has lived in the United States for 32 years, but she keeps coming back for the Mexican products she finds here. She also is drawn by the cheap prices. “I buy whatever is best, vegetables, nopales (cactus leaves), cereal, chiles,” she said. “But sometimes the fruit and vegetables are overripe, so I go elsewhere.”