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Atlanta Journal - Constitution

Home Cooking Market Specializes In Latino Products


May 30, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved.

The aroma of freshly made yellow corn tortillas saturates the air at El Valu, the new supermarket in Smyrna.

Workers stack the corn goodies as they roll off a conveyor belt, then wrap them in shiny paper stamped with the words Los Amigos Tortilla Factory. The warmth seeps through the paper.

The tortillas, made fresh daily, are part of the draw to a store that supplies food and a range of services to its target customers - -- Latinos --- said Larry Buckles, co-owner of the 60,000-square- foot El Valu.

It opened at South Cobb Drive and Windy Hill Road this month in a space previously occupied by Cub Foods.

Latinos, long accustomed to searching for their favorite foods and essential cooking utensils in small grocery stores strung out across the county, now have a shopping space that's on par with other large supermarkets.

"We want to give them the best product that's out there," said Ruben Rodriguez, president of Los Amigos. "And there's nothing better than having it come straight off the line."

While mainstream stores like Wal-Mart, Publix, Kroger and Ingles are adding shelves or aisles of food products from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, El Valu is a whole store chock-full of all things Latin.

In some ways, El Valu is more than a store. It is symbolic of the continuing demographic changes in metro Atlanta.

"It's like what the health food store is to the nature community," said Sam Zamarripa, chairman of the Latin American Association.

The gas-powered tortilla-making machine flattens the balls of corn flour dough and bakes and cools the discs at a rate of 800 dozen every hour. It operates where Cub's floral shop used to be.

Where a deli would be is Picoso, selling ready-to-eat tacos and burritos of beef, chicken and barbecued pork. Tia Maria's bakery sells Mexican sweet breads.

Instead of an in-store mainstream bank, El Valu has a check- cashing and money-transfer service. It also sells prepaid calling cards, music, cowboy hats and boots, and jewelry. Soon to come is an auto insurance and registration service.

"We are trying to communicate . . . that we don't see our targeted customer as being different. They are a mainstay for us," said Buckles.

Peppers --- plump, dark green jalapenos, thin serranos and long poblanos --- shine under the store's fluorescent lights. Pinatas hang overhead, and pots --- 20-quart to 40-quart sizes --- for cooking tamales are stacked on a shelf along the wall.

"It's like the stores in Mexico," said Luis Ramirez, who is originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, as he picked through the display of peppers.

"I've never seen a store like this in Smyrna," said Ramirez, who has become a regular.

The store carries at least three dozen varieties of salsa and products like 25-pound tubs of lard and chocolate from Mexico and Colombia.

Music in Spanish --- not the nondescript sounds that fade into the background at other stores, but accordion-heavy tunes from Mexico and brassy salsa --- are piped in over the speaker system.

Overhead, the U.S. flag is joined by the flags of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Venezuela and Colombia. One customer complained to Buckles that he was missing the flag of Panama.

Smyrna City Councilman Jack Cramer, who represents the area, said he was glad to see a business move into the space, which had been vacant for months since the departure of Cub Foods.

"They took a vacant building and made it a viable retail center now. . . . I think it's a great idea," Cramer said. "There are buildings on South Cobb Drive that have been vacant for many years."

Cramer added that the owners "need to broaden [their] scope, to invite the whole community in."

But the meat counter --- full of pork neck bones, sliced pigs' feet, pork tails, beef tripe, beef neck bones, and cow and pig heads --- appeals to more than Latinos.

"That's all good Southern black folks' food that is over here," said D. Jean Frempong, who shopped at the store for the first time last week.

"I love it. I like it. I like variety. I like change. I like to see a community grow," Frempong said. "This is just perfect."

This is the second store for Buckles and his partner, Dennis Mathews. Their first, on Buford Highway in Chamblee, evolved from catering to a largely black and white clientele to serving immigrants, as newcomers from Mexico --- and later from Central America --- filled the area about 12 years ago. The company, Buckden Inc., had more than $20 million in sales last year, Buckles said.

Even the name evolved --- from Valu Foods to El Valu, as Buckles' customers called it.

"Ten years ago the Hispanics in Chamblee were male, first- generation Mexicans," Buckles said. "There were very few women, wives or spouses. At that point I didn't know how stable it was going to be. Then I started seeing more women, children, grandparents. I knew they were here because there was a change in their lives."

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