Jul 28, 2014

City's Mi Pueblo Food Center thriving

Family-owned chain created 204 new jobs

A sign of the strength of its Hispanic and Latino community, San Rafael is now home to one of the Bay Area's newest Mi Pueblo grocery stores.

Mi Pueblo Food Center, a family-owned chain, serves the growing number of Hispanics and Latinos in Northern California as well as those who just like their foods. The new store brought 204 jobs with its opening in March, at a time when many cities could use such a jolt to their local economies. Mi Pueblo chose San Rafael's Canal neighborhood for its 15th store opening, making it one of the area's only places to buy specialty foods such as whole coconuts, fresh aloe leaves and party trays of fresh tacos.

"You can find things you can't find everywhere," shopper and Fairfax resident Jill Alfano said. "It's a great place to have a quick meal. It's authentic."

The former site of a shuttered Circuit City store, Mi Pueblo's decor reflects the culture of its founders. A colorful stucco exterior of off-white, orange, melon and blue houses goods that could be found at your local Safeway -- but with a twist. The produce section offered bananas but also plantains. The meat counter had steaks and chickens but also pig's feet and tripe. Shelves also displayed Mexican chocolate, frozen pupusas and, of course, stacks and stacks of tortillas.

Mi Pueblo spokeswoman Perla Rodriguez said the opening of the San Rafael store generated a lot of excitement, and its opening brought thousands of people from as far away as the East Bay. Some customers will drive 30 minutes or more to get the ingredients they need for a traditional meal so they can eat like they do back home. In Spanish, Mi Pueblo means "my people."

Rodriguez said San Rafael's demographics attracted Mi Pueblo to the location, as well as its proximity to a school, many apartment complexes and the Marin Health and Wellness Campus.

"San Rafael has a large Hispanic community -- with many from Guatemala and also Mexico and other parts of Latin America," Rodriguez said. In the latest available U.S. Census figures from 2000, San Rafael's Hispanic and Latino residents made up about 23.3 percent of its total population.

The shoppers coming through the store's doors on a recent weekday were a diverse racial mix of whites, South Asians, East Asians and Latinos. Many shoppers said they liked the freshness of the food and the good prices.

Filemon Valverde, who lives in Novato, shops regularly at the store. He said he can find all the ingredients for the authentic Mexican meals he cooks at home.

"They have fresh meat, and the prices are cheap," he said.

Soni Farwell, a San Rafael resident, said she likes the store's pico de gallo, radishes, pastries and other specialty items.

"I don't do all my shopping here," Farwell said. "The produce is really nice, their prices are really good, and it is really clean. And it's great they have hired so many people."

Mi Pueblo Food Center's other stores are scattered around the Bay Area, Central Valley and Monterey area, in cities such as Salinas, East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Modesto, Watsonville and San Jose. Its newest store is in Atwater, near Merced. The Northern California chain, founded in 1991, has 16 locations and is adding three to five new stores a year.

Rodriguez said that in the past couple years, new store openings have attracted about 4,000 job applicants for the roughly 200 positions. Mi Pueblo's next opening is scheduled for the East Bay's Newark.

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