Mi Pueblo has always had very high standards in its Mexican-focused foodservice offerings, Ramirez pointed out, “though when we lost so much of our skill set, all that knowledge disappeared, and there was no one to prepare the recipes we’d been known for.
“It’s something most chains will never be able to figure out,” he said. “It looks simple, but it’s extraordinarily complicated, especially when it comes to the fresh side of the business.
“Anyone can put together a recipe for something like mole or salsa, but it’s very complex to prepare those dishes properly, and there’s no general formula that will make the fresh food taste great. That requires years of training and experience and knowing exactly the right combination of ingredients.
“The same is true of making Mexican pan dulce [sweet bread] and other baked goods — it’s all very complicated. A chain can hire the expertise, but most still have a hard time getting the tastes specific to the areas of Mexico that people grew up with.
“Now that Mi Pueblo is headed in the right direction, we’re committed to making the best pan dulce in Northern California by establishing extensive training programs to teach new bakers how to make fresh bread and be sure it’s consistent across all stores.”
The stores, which average 35,000 square feet, are designed to have the feel of a small village in Mexico, with exterior facades that resemble a traditional hacienda, with large arches and a bell tower and painted festive colors such as bright pink, blue and ochre; while interior wall décor depicts homes and shops at the center of a rural town.
Most locations serve first-, second- and third-generation Mexicans, with bilingual signage and bilingual employees, Ramirez noted.
The chain’s print ads and mailers use 80% Spanish, with some English translations, he said. However, as Mi Pueblo tries to broaden its sales base to accommodate more non-Hispanic customers, some ads feature a 60/40 Spanish-to-English mix, he pointed out.
“At the end of the day, our core target is still Hispanic,” Ramirez explained. “But the dining rooms in most of our stores are like melting pots, and I think we’ll see a day, probably sooner than later, where you’ll have Hispanic, Anglo, Asian and African cultures all mixed together in what are now Hispanic-focused chains.”
One industry observer told SN he believes Mi Pueblo, like other Hispanic-based chains, may need to broaden its appeal more rapidly. “Many Hispanic chains are operating with a 20th century mindset, but as more and more younger consumers turn their attention to companies like Amazon and Blue Apron, these ethnic chains need to alter the way they think about their base,” he said.
Mi Pueblo is already experiencing some cultural change at a couple of locations, Ramirez said, citing a store in downtown San Jose that attracts a lot of African American and Asian customers and a store in East Palo Alto that attracts an upscale mix of customers from Stanford University, Facebook, Google and Tesla.
“You have to honor everyone who comes into the store and treat them equally, and that’s no different for an ethnic operator than for a conventional operator,” Ramirez said.
“Most Hispanics come to the stores for the products and the pricing, but for non-Hispanics, coming to Mi Pueblo is fun — like stepping into Mexico simply by entering the store. The aromas, plus the high quality and attractive pricing, are part of Mi Pueblo’s DNA.”
Though the stores cater primarily to Mexicans and Salvadorans, the Spanish language — though it differs somewhat from country to country — is a strong bond, Alberto Gonzalez,vice president, told SN.
“We are bicultural and bilingual, and we understand what our customers want,” he said. “When you step into a store, it feels like home, with the music, aromas, colors and authentic merchandise — and we offer products that people from different countries can’t buy elsewhere,” Gonzalez explained.
The stores don’t feature natural and organic products as such, he added, “but we offer good-for-you sections featuring fresh, natural products that connect with the earth,» he noted.
Ramirez said he believes the kinds of fresh, natural products Mexicans have consumed for years will help attract a broader mix of customers, citing several examples, including prickly pears, “which people are discovering are very healthy”; habanero peppers, “which have incredible properties, including helping with weight loss,” he said; and nopales (tender cactus), “which has terrific properties that can help control diabetes and high blood pressure.”
Ramirez said he is a big fan of nopales salad, pulling a container out of his personal “stash” to show SN. “This stuff will blow your mind,” he declared. “Once people discover nopales salad, they’ll have no need for Metamucil.”
The nopales salad is made on the store floor, with tastings available, he said.
In terms of pricing, Ramirez said Mi Pueblo has a system in place to check chain pricing on approximately 100 items “and then always price below them. We’re not discounters, but we offer prices no one can match day-in and day-out. We’re even lower than Costco.”
Some of its pricing edge comes from being a member of Unified Grocers, Los Angeles, Ramirez noted, but he said he also credits the chain’s buying team.
Ramirez has spent his career in the food business — first on the supplier side with Frito-Lay and Mission Foods, then on the retail side with Cardenas Markets in Southern California before being hired by Mi Pueblo in June 2014.
He said Mi Pueblo is letting people know it’s back and moving forward “by doing a lot of work at the grassroots level,” including the following:
• Awarding college scholarships to more than 70 high-school students— a number he said the company expects to double next year.
• Hosting immigration clinics at which professionals talk to Hispanics about how new laws might impact them, how to achieve permanent legal status and how to bring relatives to the U.S. from Mexico.
• Sponsoring a “jaripeo,” a Mexican rodeo featuring bull-riding demonstrations and performances by popular bands — an event at which the company’s logo is prominently displayed.
• Setting up information booths at stores in a partnership with Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange, to inform customers about affordable health insurance options.
• Hosting representatives from Pacific Gas & Electric to promote energy saving programs and raise awareness of financial assistance programs available.
• Offering store tours to local schools.
• Partnering with local food banks in a canned food drive to help the homeless during Thanksgiving.
• Conducting a contest in which consumers submitted videos of their local ballet folklorico troupes.
• Having a “mero mero” [a masked hero] make appearances at stores to add excitement — paying for some customers’ groceries, helping to carry groceries to cars and posing for pictures with kids.
• Hosting Mother’s Day drawings in which customers had a chance to win a mariachi serenade for their mother.