Grande Foods in Cornelius, reinvented to cater to Latino shoppers, stocks chicken feet, pork snouts - and candles
by: photo by Chase Allgood,

If you have a great recipe for chicken feet, cactus leaves or beef tongues, but have a hard time finding a reliable source for ingredients, Grande Foods in Cornelius has the solution to your culinary dilemma.

Formerly Hank's Thriftway, the newly renovated store opened last Thursday with a product line geared toward Washington County's large Hispanic population.

'It's going to be a big hit - a lot of people are going to come,' said customer Maria Mata as she strolled down the meat aisle. Though not a fan of chicken feet herself, Mata said the broad variety of ethnic fare will definitely appeal to Grande Foods' target demographic.

'I'm surprised it's so crowded. There were hardly any people here before,' she said, referring to the grocery's previous incarnation. 'It's more like what Latin people want. Around here, we couldn't find anything like this.'

Aside from the shift in meats and produce, other factors also lend themselves to a south-of-the-border ambiance. Instead of the typical Muzak or sappy love songs you'll likely hear at other grocery stores, the airwaves at Grande Foods hum with lively Latin instrumentals.

In the candy aisle, next to the Red Vines and Jolly Ranchers, hang baggies of Rellenitos Freja, which are described as 'strawberry flavored hard candy with a jelly filling.' At the other end of the store, you can pick up a scented candle embellished with the image of a haggard-looking 'San Lazaro,' an exultant 'San Martin Caballero,' a crucifix-bearing Pope John Paul II, or any number of other religious icons.

Even the explanatory signs within the aisles bear lessons in culture and language. If you pick up some beans, rice, and a packet of napkins, you'll immediately learn that in Spanish, these items are referred to as 'frijoles,' 'arroz,' and 'servilletas.'

'We are catering to the Latino community,' said Tom Evans, one of Grande Foods' owners. 'I looked at the demographics. With the rising percentage of Latinos in the community, nobody was serving them like we are now.'

Evans said he had been toying with the idea of transforming Hank's into a Hispanic-oriented grocery store for years, but he didn't consider the switch in earnest until September 2005. Inertia was one of the main reasons he didn't make the change earlier.

'I'd been doing the same thing for 36 years, and I was afraid of upsetting longtime Hank's customers,' he said. 'A lot of them have embraced it. My fears were almost unfounded.'

By traveling to stores that served the Latino populace in Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix, Evans educated himself about what made such grocers successful. Apart from providing clients with ingredients suited to traditional Hispanic meals, he found that lower prices had a big impact as well.

To decrease costs, Evans has cut a sizeable chunk of shelf space from the facility. Products that didn't resonate with Hispanic clients were reduced, and three entire aisles were eliminated.

The extra space allows the store to receive and easily transport large shipments of popular products, thereby 'skipping the middlemen,' Evans said.

'We had 32 types of Hamburger Helper, and we now have 10,' he said, noting that the extra operating room 'saves me in labor, and I get better deals when I buy it by the pallet.'

Grande Foods' customers have been quick to notice the differences. While examining avocados with her grandchildren, Carmen Hernandez spouted off a long litany of advantages the new grocery has over Hank's.

Translating from Spanish for her grandmother, Cynthia Lopez, 11, succinctly summarized, 'She likes everything. She mostly likes that it's cheap.'

'Now, this is our WinCo!' exclaimed her brother, Manuel, 8, raising his fist triumphantly in the air, referring to a large Hillsboro grocer that has been popular with Latino shoppers.

Turning Hank's into a large-scale store that doubles as a specialty grocer required Evans and his business partners, Larry Hering and Lyle Blow, to reorganize their business model considerably. Their distributor, Unified Western Grocers, was able to help because stores they work with in California had undergone similar transformations.

'We've had to source new contracts,' said Jim Montgomery, sales manager for the distributor. 'It has been very different as far as learning a new nomenclature.'

Although Unified Western Grocers developed new food connections, they have also retained plenty of sources familiar to loyal Hank's customers like Travis and Amy Schlegel.

Stopping by Grande Foods for soda and other provisions, the Schlegels said they have gotten used to periodic alterations over the years.

'We grew up with a Hank's where you could buy fishing tackle, toys and a bolt of fabric on one trip,' said Travis. 'That's been gone quite a while.'

Despite the changes, Grande Foods is still a place the Schlegels can rely on for cola, tomatoes, steaks and their other shopping needs. And, should they strike an appetite for pork snouts, they'll know just where to turn.

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