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BY Pamela Mercer
June 3, 2001
"Everyone said we wouldn't last six months," Muñoz recalled.
Four years later, her shop, Tomato Express, has blossomed into one of the area's best known grocery stores for Latin American food. Muñoz and her family have proven the skeptics so wrong that, for the past year, at least four more Hispanic food stores have settled in a 2 1/2-mile stretch of Michigan. Two, Plaza Popular and Plaza Gigante, have opened within 600 feet of Tomato Express.
With so many businesses, store owners say competition has become fierce and, despite her success, Muñoz is feeling the pressure. Next fall, the family plans to move the store to an 8,000-square-foot site on the more visible Osceola Parkway.
"We had the opportunity to move and we took it up because it was between that and staying here, hidden away," she said. "If I'm going to compete, I will do so with more advantage."
Latin Americans who visit an American grocery store for the first time are often struck by the odor of perfumed air conditioning that hovers indiscriminately over spices, deli meats and produce. Enter a Latin American grocery and distinctive smells are everywhere. The wholesome, rusty smell of potatoes, pineapple leaves, rice and flour invade the senses like a home-cooked meal. Then there is the contrast of sights. The neatly packaged fruits and vegetables of a Publix or Albertson's become irregularly shaped potatoes of sizes as varied as the families that buy them. The plantain is displayed in an open cardboard box as if it had just been picked, looking all the more delectable for it.
At Plaza Gigante, the crackers are made by Sultana, a Latin American brand. The smoked pork sausages known as chorizos, the guava and pineapple juices and the powdered cornstarch recall a sense of home for Hispanic visitors. Known as maizena, the cornstarch, cooked with milk and a little nutmeg, is prescribed as a comfort from indigestion or flu in many a Latin American household.
The gigantic 100-pound sacks of rice, a popular staple in Latin America, greet customers at several store entrances for under $20 each. The enormous, irregular sized pieces of pork at the meat counter make the mouth water for Puerto Rican, Dominican or Colombian families planning a special meal. Loudspeakers page cashiers and announce items for sale in Spanish, and salsa music or news about Latin America on Spanish-language stations can be heard in that fast-paced monotone that provides up-to-date, 24-hour information for this culture of avid radio listeners.
These are the sights and sounds that are invading Central Florida, as the Hispanic population soars. About 42 percent of Kissimmee's residents and almost half of those in Deltona and East Altamonte Springs are Hispanic. Once a nascent industry, the Latin American grocery store has become a fixture in almost every major community here.
On Orlando's East Colonial Drive, where Latin American food outlets also abound, Luis Sigcha, a grocery owner, is seeking to edge out his competitors by attracting non-Hispanics.
"I have 50 percent Hispanic food and 50 percent pizza," said Sigcha, an Ecuadorian who used to live in New York. "The growth in Hispanic businesses has been tremendous, but our competition is solid because we stand out."
Several blocks down from Tomato Express in Kissimmee, Rene Ramirez, the owner of Casa Del Pueblo grocery store, is also considering his assets. Standing behind his counter one recent afternoon, he pointed to the window behind him.
"I have a big parking lot," he said. "Most [Latin American] grocery stores don't."
Still, he acknowledges that is not enough. He plans to add to his appeal by converting half of the shop into a small cafeteria, "so that the competition doesn't affect us."
"Otherwise," he added, "we will all end up doing the same thing."
Despite their different nationalities, most shop owners in the area say they try to cater to all Latin American tastes. Muñoz, who is also of Puerto Rican descent, says she is adding new foods from Argentina and Colombia to cater to growing demand. Plaza Popular, also a Puerto Rican-owned outlet, carries a rare stash of Arequipe, a sweet caramel dip popular in Colombia.
Yet as the market becomes saturated, smaller shops are fighting to survive. In the three months since Jairo and Ester Paez opened a Colombian grocery store just down the street from Plaza Gigante and Plaza Popular, they are reconsidering their decision.
Sales have been so low that the couple has stopped selling perishable products like meat and chicken. Red potatoes, which in Colombian supermarkets are stored at room temperature, are kept inside a freezer for extra longevity. Guavas have been packaged as guava paste, or bocadillo, a popular Colombia snack that can be stored in a pantry for weeks.
"There are too many supermarkets in this area," said Ester Paez. "We're all bunched together."