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Rio Grande Valley sees inventive independent retailers

While H-E-B and Walmart rule the roost throughout the Valley’s high-population areas, a handful of grocers have managed to find their niche in more remote, rural areas.

“A number of smaller, local food stores are able to compete and fill-in where the larger supermarkets have not built,” said Gary Huddleston, who serves as food store consultant for the Texas Retailers Association (TRA)

For instance, he points to Earth Born Market, a family-owned grocer with two locations in McAllen. The retailer focuses on locally grown, fresh, whole, raw, natural, and organic foods.

Junior’s Super Market is another locally owned chain with eight locations across the Valley, including three stores in Pharr.

“After H-E-B, I’d say Junior’s Super Market is the next largest grocery store here in the Valley,” said Ruben Guadalupe Cavazos, manager of Ruben’s Grocery, a family-owned and operated independent grocery store in McAllen.

“The stores are located in more rural, low-income areas of the upper Valley. They carry regular canned goods and staple items, but they cater more to the Mexican customer.”

In addition to a meat market, deli, and bakery, each Junior’s location includes a Tortilleria, which serves up fresh-baked corn and flour tortillas every day. Junior’s Super Market also offers a Mexican Kitchen, a restaurant that dishes out freshly prepared meals to shoppers.

“The signs are written in Spanish, the workers are Hispanic, the owner is Mexican,” Cavazos said. “It’s an almost completely Mexican customer base. The prices might be the same as
H-E-B or slightly higher, but they don’t have as many promotions as H-E-B because they’re not as big.”

Still thriving: Ruben’s Grocery
Then, there’s Ruben’s Grocery: the last independent, single-location retailer still standing in McAllen, according to Cavazos. Founded 47 years ago by Cavazos’ father (also named Ruben), Ruben’s Grocery took a creative, some might say ‘blessed’ approach to selling groceries by converting a church into a retail establishment.

“We turned the church into a grocery store with a permit from the city—they gave us a variance because the area where our store is [located] is very impoverished,” Cavazos said.

“At the time in 1971, people here were very poor. There was no public transportation, and they couldn’t get to where the larger grocery stores were. Those stores were not going to build near this impoverished neighborhood; they built where there was more money. So, we filled that niche.”

As the decades passed, Ruben’s Grocery evolved into much more than a local market. “Now we are more of a specialty store than a grocery store,” Cavazos said. “We still cater to the neighborhood, and we still have all of your regular staple items. But in order stay alive, we decided to branch out and offer unique imported foods. We wanted to cater to the people who live in the Valley from other countries that the big grocery stores were not going to cater to.”

Over the years, Cavazos has seen countless independent grocers shutter their doors in the Valley. “When I was a child, there were a lot of independent grocery stores, and there were no giant food chains,” he said. “But as H-E-B came in and grew, all of our fellow competitors fell by the wayside. We’re the last independent single-store in the city of McAllen and one of the very few in the entire Valley.”

He said Ruben’s continues to thrive because it offers specialty items customers can’t find elsewhere along with unsurpassed customer service.

“At Ruben’s, you’re being taken care of by the owner,” he explains. “I don’t have an office; my office is the floor with the customers, and I listen to my customers. If they tell me they can’t get something at H-E-B, I order it for them.”

The store features an old-fashioned meat market with eight butchers behind the counter at all times.

“Not a single thing in our meat department is pre-packaged,” Cavazos said. “Everything is cut to order, hand-wrapped in butcher paper, and handed to the customer—old-fashioned style. If you want it freezer wrapped, well freezer-wrap it for you.”

And Ruben’s Grocery customers never carry out their own groceries. “Our grocery carts are not like the ones you use at Walmart, the ones you take out of the store and leave in the parking lot,” he said.

Ruben’s shopping carts never see the sunlight; instead, the “sacker” at each register places the customer’s groceries in a separate, heavy-duty cart and takes them straight to the shopper’s car.

“Walking into Ruben’s is like walking into a time machine—it takes you back to the way things used to be,” Cavazos said. “It’s the nostalgia that keeps people coming back. It’s kind of like the beginning of Cheers: you want go where everybody knows your name. A lot of our customers know me, and I always say hello. It makes them feel special.”

This is an excerpt from the most recent Produce Blueprints quarterly journal. Click here to read the full supplement.