You can't buy frozen pizzas or T-bone steaks at Coachella's only grocery. The store doesn't offer a club card either, and it doesn't have wide aisles. But customers aren't complaining, says Abby Halum, the 40-year-old owner of the Coachella Ranch Market and five smaller Toro Loco stores in the desert.
In fact, while the city's single mainstream grocery, a Vons two blocks away, will close its doors today because of poor sales, the Ranch Market is busy all the time -- so busy that Halum is considering an offer to lease the bigger Vons space.
"Business has always been good for us," said Halum, whose family moved to the desert from the Los Angeles area in 1988. "You find a niche that meets the needs of the community and provide good service, and they will come."
Halum and his wife preside over a small but growing grocery empire that caters to a large Latino and immigrant population in the eastern Coachella Valley.
The couple have already leased space for their sixth Toro Loco in Cathedral City -- their first on the west end of the valley -- and have plans to build a shopping center, anchored by a seventh Toro Loco, in the rural farming town of Thermal.
As Southern California's Hispanic population has grown over the last decade, Coachella Ranch Market, Ontario-based Cardenas Markets, Maxi-Foods in Riverside and similar chains have found themselves in a stronger competitive position, said George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos.
"Traditional supermarkets are not terribly relevant in many communities in California, particularly in some desert areas," he said by phone.
Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of those of Hispanic descent in Riverside County grew from 26.3 percent to 36.2 percent. In San Bernardino County, the percentage leaped from 26.7 percent to 39.2 percent. In Coachella, 97 percent of the population is Hispanic.
Vons spokesman Daymond Rice didn't want to comment on why the company is closing its Coachella store, except to say "the influx of nonunion, low-cost operators has certainly made an impact on our ability to compete in that area."
Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons are also still fighting for their old customers, who got to know the independent and ethnic markets during the 4 1/2-month supermarket strike and lockout, which ended in early March, Whalin said.
But the big chains aren't giving up.
Earlier this year, Kroger, which owns Ralphs and Food 4 Less, announced that it would open a Food 4 Less in Coachella in 2005. And last month, a San Diego developer filed plans for a 54,000-square-foot Albertsons a few blocks away.
Together, those stores will give Halum a run for his customers' money.
From his second floor office in Coachella Ranch Market, Halum can look down through arched indoor windows directly at what he calls his Mexican food aisle.
"If we don't have it, probably no one in the valley has it," he said about the store's selection of products that are familiar to Mexican immigrants.
Besides a massive array of canned chilies and salsas, stacked tortillas and boxed juices, milk and cream, jars of nopalitos (cactus leaves) fill the aisle, alongside canned abalone, and dessert mixes for flan and churros.
"Vons is laid out in a corporate way. They have two or three times more items than we do, but for a Hispanic family, we have everything they want," he said.
Halum was born in Nicaragua, where his parents immigrated to in 1952 from what is now the Palestinian-controlled part of the West Bank. In the late 1960s, the family moved to Florida, where Halum's father owned several clothing stores.
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