NAME: MANUEL SOTO OCCUPATION: Independent grocer, Los Angeles suburb INCOME: $22,000 PLEASURES:California Angels baseball games COMPLAINTS: Wholesale food and gasoline prices, housing costs OUTLOOK: "I'll do well just to stay in business."

Manuel Soto opened La Quebradita Market in this heavily Hispanic Los Angeles suburb two years ago with great expectations.

"I thought we were really going to build a business here and expand to some other locations," Soto, 26, recalled in the office of his large, mostly deserted store. "Now it's a struggle just to keep what we have. My business is decreasing and it's all this inflation that's doing it."

The little rotund grocer estimated that business has dropped off nearly 20 percent since this time last year. Meanwhile, shelf prices for his goods -- meats, cheese, Mexican specialities, canned goods -- have gone up 22 percent. "People aren't buying so much anymore," he said. "They just can't afford it."

When he established La Quebradita -- "a little break" in Spanish -- Soto thought he could attract customers from Los Angeles far-flung barrio by keeping his prices 10 to 15 percent below those at the local supermarkets. He bought salvage and overstock from other retailers; he dealt with processors directly. It worked at first and he had plenty of shoppers. Then came the soaring price of gasoline.

"Believe it, man, people used to come from all over to go shopping here," said Soto, who holds a degree in business from California State University at Northridge. "Now they don't come because of the gas. They used to come here to save a few bucks but now the trips eats it all up."

Soto's fastest-growing financial woe, however, is pilferage of the stock on his shelves. Since last year, he estimated, losses from stealing have increased 50 percent.

"It's mostly these senior citizens. It just kills you to see it," Soto said. "When we take them into the back room, they say it's necessary to steal because, man, they can't afford the food. We don't call the police on them. We just tell them to shop somewhere else. I really feel sorry for these people."

Compared to the old people to the barrio, Soto said, he can't complain too much about his own situation. While he cannot increase his income to keep up with inflation, Soto remained confident he could hold onto his store. Luckily, he pointed out, the loans to finance his business were negotiated several years ago when interest rates were half of today's.

But inflation has definitely made a difference in the lives of Soto, his wife Celia and their three children. They had hopes, as recently as a month ago when the baby was born, of buying a bigger house to replace their cramped three-bedroom bungalow in West Covina, a 30-minute drive from the market. But with housing prices in the area scaling $100,000, the move has been ruled out.

"I figure I would make a real good profit if I sold my house, but no matter where I look it would be too expensive," Soto said. "I can't worry about doing anything anymore, going out. Hell, I haven't taken a real vacation in two years. All I care about is keeping my car filled with gas."

Childhood sweetheart Celia, Soto's wife of six years, plans to return to work at a photocopy service in downtown Los Angeles to help pay for some recent roof repairs on their house -- a $3,000 job financed at 14 percent. sShe'll start when the baby is 8 months old. "Maybe the children will have to work someday, too," she said.

Said Soto, whose workweek averages 64 hours:

"Sometimes you want to give up. I used to enjoy coming to work when the inflation wasn't so high and the business was growing. Now it's tapering off and it's hard getting up in the morning and going to work in the market. You come here and look around and say, "where is everyone?'"