by John McCurry / contributing writer
Hidalgo County in South Texas, with a population approaching 900,000, is one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. A major logistics hubs, it is the No. 1. land port for fresh produce imports from Mexico, with about 2 million tons of fresh produce entering the country annually.
While Hidalgo has been booming in recent years, it – like everywhere in the U.S. – has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Keith Patridge, president and CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corp., which promotes the area as a location for business, said the last few months have been tough.
“We’ve had our challenges,” Patridge said. “I think in McAllen our retail sales have been down about 30 percent from last year. Produce is one of the areas we have not seen a slowdown. If anything, it’s increasing and that might be because of the time of the year.”
A segment of the region’s economy that has thrived has been the grocery business. A prime example is Junior’s Supermarkets, which operates eight stores in Hidalgo County.
“People have been buying more because of there being no school in session and some people being out of work,” said Juan Garcia, a supervisor who oversees all eight locations. “They are buying everything, especially breakfast foods, as they are now eating breakfast at home. We are selling more eggs, pancake mixes, syrups.”
Three of Junior’s stores are in Pharr, and there is one in Alton, Edinburg, the town of Hidalgo, Penitas and San Juan. The stores, which employ a total of about 450 people, have all been busy since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We can see the effects of customers who are now eating three meals a day at home,” Garcia said. “When the restaurants closed, people had to figure out how to eat at home.”
Customers enjoy Junior’s extensive meat departments. The chain advertises that it is “The Real Meat People.” Garcia said some first-time customers think Junior’s is just a meat market and are surprised to find a full-service grocery store with a deli, bakery and café. The chain also is known for its fresh-baked bread.
As customers stocked up the past few months, frozen foods have been a big seller. That’s a big change from the norm for Juniors. There was a temporary shortage of fresh meat due to the closing of some processing plants. Juniors compensated by finding different suppliers and has been able to meet demand. Prices rose, reflecting the shortage, but they are starting to decrease.
“It has been hectic,” Garcia said. “Customers are getting used to coming in with masks. Our regular suppliers have been out of a lot of stuff, like the Clorox wipes and bleach. We have been using other suppliers, some from Mexico, for paper towels and tissue paper, bleach, things like that.”
When the pandemic hit, Junior’s installed Plexiglass shields and implemented mandatory mask-wearing for employees. Each store has a person outside sanitizing the shopping carts, and hand sanitizer is available for customers. Also, employees have their temperature checked before they begin work each day.
The customers are loyal. Garcia said they appreciate Junior’s service and person-to-person contact. Stores range from 30,000 to 40,000 square feet.
The chain is now experimenting with self-checkout stations, adding four in one of the stores. Garcia said that is working well, so they may be added to the other sites.
Junior’s also is considering implementing online ordering. Garcia expects the chain will continue to grow and add more stores in the coming years. He credits Felix Chavez Jr., who founded Junior’s in 1981, with the chain’s success and steady growth.
“I’ve been with the company for 34 years, and I’ve learned a lot from [him],” Garcia said. “What I like about this company is [he] doesn’t want to get behind. He invests in the stores. He’s trying to keep up with the trends.
“The trend in buying, it’s changing, so we need to just keep on changing with it. Service and quality are most important, and we try to keep up with the trends, like offering what Millennials want. Mr. Chavez is very good at that. The independent is almost obsolete. We’re the biggest independent in the Rio Grande Valley, and we’re here to stay.”
After all of his years of service, Garcia still enjoys working long hours. He comes to work early each morning and puts in 50 to 60 hours per week. He especially enjoys helping customers. Garcia’s office is in Junior’s corporate headquarters, but he tries to visit each store two or three times a week.
“Sometimes I jokingly say that I work 24/7,” he said. “Independents have survived in this economy and we are doing really well. We try to keep up with the trends.”