Hispanic grocery stores proliferate in Maryland

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, February 28, 2011

Mega Market International, a Hispanic grocery chain based in Silver Spring, has kept pace with the Latino population boom in suburban Maryland, opening five stores in the past decade.

The supermarkets sprang up in central immigrant hubs in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, including Hyattsville and Rockville. New arrivals from Latin America and the Caribbean can find familiar labels of beans, flours and grains from back home at these 10,000-square-foot stores.

"We saw great opportunities to serve the community, even though the market was getting crowded," said Eric Velasquez, a partner in Mega Market.

A crop of bodegas, said the El Salvadoran grocer, have popped up in recent years, adding to the competition from Korean grocers and mainstream stores like Giant Foods that also cater to Hispanic tastes.

"You can find Hispanic groceries on almost every corner of Hyattsville and Langley Park these days," said Jorge Ribas, president and chief executive of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in the District. He has recently added nearly a dozen new grocers to his membership rolls of more than 450 businesses in the Washington area.

Within Takoma-Langley Crossroads, around University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue, there are seven Hispanic supermarkets, according to Robert Duffy, a planning supervisor with the Prince George's County Planning Department. Across the way in the central Kenilworth Avenue corridor, there are four of these stores.

Duffy is not certain when they all opened, but said that "it speaks to the growth that certainly the recent census numbers have shown us about the dominant and aggressive growth of the Hispanic population."

Prince George's and Montgomery counties gained roughly 137,000 Hispanic residents over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. During that time, Latinos made great strides in entrepreneurship. The number of Hispanic-owned businesses in Montgomery grew 56 percent to 11,555; in Prince George's, they rose 48 percent to 6,412 between 2002 and 2007, the most recent census data.

Carlos Castro, owner of Todos supermarket in Woodbridge and Dumfries, witnessed waves of Hispanics move to suburban Maryland as jobs dried up and anti-immigrant sentiment surged in Northern Virginia in recent years.

"Maryland has been welcoming to Latinos and that is where the boom is now," said Castro, who is gearing up to take over a former 53,000-square-foot Giant in Woodbridge. "They seem to be opening a new grocery store every two or three months."

Despite the downturn, the national retail sales of Hispanic foods and beverages grew 6.9 percent to $7 billion in 2009, according to Packaged Facts. The research firm anticipates sales will top $9.5 billion in 2014. It's no wonder that stores like Whole Foods carry sofritos and malta.

Juan Lopez, the Mid-Atlantic division manager for Goya Foods, said supermarkets of all types across the region have taken a shine to the company's Latino products. To meet the demand, Goya, now celebrating its 75th anniversary, has introduced some 500 new products in the last five years.

Compared with long-established Hispanic hubs, like Los Angeles or New York City, the suburban Maryland Hispanic grocers sector is in its infancy. "Because immigration here is fairly recent, the diversity of stores and offerings is at least 30 years behind," said Ribas of the business chamber. "But it's easy to catch up if people are willing to put in the capital."

That may be difficult in the current economic state. Existing Hispanic grocers are struggling to stay afloat as some customers continue to rein in spending. Mega Market slowed its expansion last year following the launch of a Gaithersburg location.

"Instead of buying eight or four pound bags of beans, people are buying just two," Velasquez said. "Business is okay, but not what it used to be."

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