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El Super: A Taste of Home

May 27, 2014

“Most of the associates are your neighbors. They really understand who you are because they are a part of your community,” said marketer Alcántara-Díaz

Pushing a shopping cart brimming with bags of groceries, Roxanna Fuentes made her way out of her neighborhood El Super market in Wilmington, Calif. and toward a crowded parking lot late on a Saturday morning.

Fuentes, a house cleaner who has lived in the working-class, harbor community for 25 years, said she feels more comfortable at El Super and prefers it to other stores for the prices and the products.

“I come here all the time, every week,” she said as she and her husband loaded more than a dozen grocery bags into the trunk of their small red car. “It’s more cheap and they have very good stuff—the beef, the specials, everything.”

Many shoppers such as Fuentes frequent El Super’s bright and airy Latino-driven supermarkets, where rows of donkey-and star-shaped piñatas decorate the shelves and the smell of pink-sugared pan dulce, a Mexican sweet bread, welcomes incoming customers. Latin products, often tucked away in the ethnic foods aisle of most American grocery stores, are prominently on display at El Super.

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Here, customers zero in on produce signs that read naranjas (oranges) and jitomates (tomatoes) and Mexican products such as LaLa blueberry yogurt that share real estate with the likes of Chobani Greek yogurt in the dairy aisle.

“Everything is there,” Fuentes said. “We need more (places) like this.”

El Super is doing just that—providing more grocery stores that make shopping for Latinos an inclusive, sensory, familiar experience.
That was El Super founder Al Lujan’s vision in the 1990s, when he first conceived of the idea and brought it to Spencer Trask as a potential investment. Lujan wanted to build an ethnic food superstore that could stand as a symbol of welcome as well as bring the flavors of home to the millions of incoming Latino immigrants to the United States.

Charting unprecedented census growth of 43 percent since 2010, El Super serves and suits this surging population. Latino numbers have now topped 50 million, and account for about one out of every six Americans, according to current U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Facing a wave of market demand, El Super took on a strategic partnership with Grupo Chedraui, one of the largest supermarket chains in Mexico, to grow, bolster and streamline its operations.

Sixteen years after opening its first store in South Gate, Calif., Bodega Latina Corp., doing business as El Super, now operates more than 40 stores in Latino-concentrated areas throughout California, Arizona and Nevada. U.S. retail sales of Latino food products are expected to reach almost $10.7 billion by 2017, according to the 2012 Hispanic Food and Beverages in the U.S. report.

The Paramount, Calif.-based food retailer ranks No. 3 in Supermarket News’ 2013 list of the Top 50 Small Chains and Independents. The rankings, assembled by the weekly food distribution industry trade magazine, took into account the food retailer’s sales gains, mergers and acquisitions.

Bodega Latina moved in rank from last year’s No. 10 to this year’s No. 3 based on its recent acquisition of eight high-volume stores from K.V. Mart in Carson, Calif., according to Supermarket News.

This is a time of growth,” Bodega Latina Corp. Chief Executive Officer Carlos Smith said after his company purchased seven stores from its competitor, Gigante, in Southern California. “We believe that bringing the Gigante stores into the El Super family will provide synergies that will benefit both the company and the consumers in Southern California,” Smith said.

Bodega Latina Corp. has been capitalizing on a growing Hispanic population that boasts much larger than average households, with 3.8 people per household versus 2.5 people per non-Hispanic household, according to U.S. Census data.

Grocery budgets among Hispanic households are expected to grow as well, at an annual average rate of 5.7 percent in the next 10 years, compared with 2.5 percent for non-Hispanic households, according to a recent study by Credit Suisse.

With an estimated $1.2 trillion in buying power, Hispanics are considered the “ideal staples consumer,” according to a study by AHAA: The Voice of Hispanic Marketing, a national organization that promotes the Hispanic marketing and advertising industry.

Many American supermarkets try to stake a position in the Hispanic market by evaluating their overall Spanish-language advertising and marketing to Spanish-dominant customers, said Gabriela Alcántara-Díaz, president of Miami-based GADMarketing Communications and a board member for AAHA.

“You may have those Hispanics who are still trying to get acclimated into the environment and into their own communities, so they go for something that’s familiar and (Bodega Latina Corp.) is really a huge success because they are bringing the Hispanic shopper into the mainstream to their store,” she said. “A lot of supermarkets are moving away from just having centralized ethnic shopping aisles and are positioning them as mainstream Hispanic shoppers.”

As an independent supermarket company, El Super has been able to grow and integrate into the neighborhood it serves, she said.

El Super Contigo participates in community programs such as Student of the Quarter and the annual El Super Scholarship Program, as well as making donations to charitable organizations and sponsoring such local events as the East L.A. Mexican Independence Parade, Huntington Park’s Christmas Lane Parade and St. Ignatius Annual Casino night, according to the company’s website.

El Super also provides and supports a volunteer program that motivates its employees to give their time and energy to various causes, including tree-plantings, community cleanups and turkey and toy drives.

“Those supermarkets are not only about food but they also represent the community,” Alcántara-Díaz said. “Most of the associates are your neighbors. They really understand who you are because they are a part of your community.”

It’s one of the main reasons why Wilmington resident Jose Rodriguez said he likes to shop at his neighborhood El Super store.

“It’s the people; I’ve known them for years and I grew up in Wilmington,” the gift shop business owner said as he left the store with cartons of Coca-Cola and gallons of orange juice for a family picnic at a nearby park.

“That makes you want to come back even more.”

"This is a Time of Growth."
– Carlos Smith, CEO of Bodega Latina Corp.