Company’s new store is part of westward growth
by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer
The Shelby Report was on hand for the festivities July 1 as a new Cardenas Markets opened in Whittier, California. CEO John Gomez later gave Bob Reeves, West VP of Shelby Publishing, a tour of the store.
Ontario, California-based Cardenas is a 59-store grocery chain that focuses on serving the Hispanic community, typically first-generation Mexican customers, Gomez explained. The company sees Whittier as a great fit.
“This is 80 percent Hispanic, predominantly Mexican, within a three-mile radius, so this is perfect for us,” he said.
Gomez is first-generation American, with both of his parents immigrating from Cuba in 1960s. After growing up in Miami, shopping at traditional Hispanic markets with his family, working for Cardenas was “a dream job.”
“For me, this was sort of a homecoming, being able to work in a Hispanic company,” he said. “Having spent most of my career in corporate America…I feel like I’m back home as a kid. And being able to speak both Spanish and English at work – it’s just a blast.”
One of the components of Cardenas that Gomez most enjoys is the celebration of culture, noting that the Mexican community has done “a fabulous job of celebrating their heritage.”
“Obviously, the majority of our customers are Mexican and so is our workforce,” Gomez said. “I always congratulate them on being able to celebrate the culture like nowhere else we’ve seen around the country.”
And this strong sense of heritage hits customers as soon as they enter the Whittier store, their five senses meeting the café, the bakery and the colorful produce section.
“You walk in and you smell a combination of coffee and baked items,” Gomez said. “What is better than bread baking and coffee in the morning? And then your next step is sort of a garden.
“I love the idea of our customers walking in with a sort of refreshed mindset with all of the smells and the colors.”
And all of the items offered cater to this traditional Mexican palate, whether that’s with tried-and-true recipes or the inclusion of staple ingredients.
Café drinks include: café de olla, a traditional Mexican coffee; Abuelita, a famous Mexican hot chocolate with cinnamon; and Spicy Abuelita, an Abuelita with a little kick.
At the bakery, everything – breads, cakes and pastries – is made fresh daily from scratch. It features items like Tres Leches cake, conchas and pan dulce, or sweet bread.
Cardenas also has part of the store dedicated to making and serving tortillas. Gomez said the tortilleria is one of the most important departments in the company.
“Every day, our customers are eating tortillas. It’s basically breakfast, lunch and dinner, he said. “They’re fabulous. We have the best tortillas in the country – maybe in the world.”
Another production area that’s proven important, especially during COVID-19, is Cardenas’ meat department, where full-service meat cutters and butchers offer items such as chorizo and marinated cuts.
“We cut all of our meat here…It’s one of the things that’s kept us in business compared to conventional grocers right now,” Gomez said.
“We really haven’t had the shortages that conventional grocers have had, which is why our meat business has been so successful.”
In addition to ingredients for recipes, Cardenas has a cocina, or kitchen, serving prepared foods. Traditional recipes include carnitas, carne asada, a variety of tamales and shrimp ceviche.
And for the time being, these areas are served to customers by employees to avoid cross-contamination of coronavirus.
This new Cardenas location is different than previous stores – it’s about 35,000 square feet, which is significant smaller, but near the footprint the chain would like to open in the future, Gomez said.
About 60 percent of the store’s sale items are perimeter-based, meaning meat, produce, café, bakery, tortilleria and cocina. The center store aisles are shorter and smaller to reflect the sales ratio, which Gomez prefers.
“I’m a big fan of the low-profile center store aisles…we really worked hard to keep that down, which is hard to do because you’re managing inventories and assortment,” he said.
As for the future, the chain plans to open two more stores in 2020. That’s a slower pace than the average of four per year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gomez said he’d ultimately like to see store openings somewhere between five to 10 per year.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new location, Cardenas CMO Adam Salgado said the Whittier store praised the cooperation of community officials.
“This has been a project that’s been in the making for a very long time as part of our strategy to go west [toward Los Angeles]. So, we’re headed west, guys. We’re coming.”
He added that projects like this “simply do not happen overnight…they come together through the support and the cooperation of great local leaders.”
For more scenes from the Cardenas’ grand opening in Whittier, click here.