Jesus Cardenas, who came to the United States as a teenage migrant worker almost 60 years ago and built one of Inland Southern California's iconic locally grown supermarket operations, has died. He would have turned 74 in about two weeks.
Mr. Cardenas, who lived in the Alta Loma area of Rancho Cucamonga, died Tuesday, March 5, after a long battle with cancer. He and his family started a single grocery store more than three decades ago, and that grew to become Cardenas Markets, a chain of 29 supermarkets in San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles and Imperial counties that recently expanded to three locations in Las Vegas.
He came to the United States as an 18-year-old from Jalisco, Mexico, in the mid-1950s, under a now-defunct federal program that allowed permanent work visas for Mexican immigrant laborers. He worked for years at numerous farms in and around the Inland Empire, but the magic moment for Mr. Cardenas and his family happened when he acquired a pregnant pig.
In a true American Dream story, Mr. Cardenas, who had settled in with his family and purchased a home with 2.5 acres in Corona, traded some tools for the pig in the mid-1970s. The offspring of that pig was used to start a successful hog farm that his wife tended while he continued to work on area farms.
That led in 1981 to the opening of the first Cardenas Market, a 4,000-square-foot store in Ontario that sold meats and other items to consumers who enjoyed ethnic foods. An extremely happy-looking pig became a permanent feature on Cardenas Market's logo.
Mr. Cardenas remained at the helm of the company as president and CEO for more than 30 years after that. His wife Luz, whom he married in 1964, is a vice president, and the couple's four children, Lupe, Jesus Jr., Jose and George, are all involved in operating the business.
Paul Granillo, president and CEO of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, the region's largest economic development agency, called Mr. Cardenas "a true entrepreneur and innovator." His passing comes as a tremendous loss to the Inland region, he said.
Granillo said in a statement that Mr. Cardenas' contributions to the area's business world and the community at large rank with those of McDonald's, Baker's and Stater Bros., three other retail operations that started decades ago in San Bernardino and Riverside counties but eventually stretched their wings on a much larger scale.
"They just started with one little store," Granillo said in an interview. "This is a family story, an immigrant story, and American story, but you only do that with a lot of hard work."
Cardenas Markets enjoyed solid growth during the years when the Inland Empire's population was booming and now employs more than 3,000 workers. The expansion was fueled when non-Latino consumers in the area began developing tastes for ethnic foods.
Stores are now as far south as Perris and Lake Elsinore and in desert cities such as Indio and El Centro. The company, still based in Ontario, moved into a new headquarters on East Guasti Road about six months ago.
Services for Mr. Cardenas will be celebrated at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 12704 Foothill Blvd., Rancho Cucamonga, at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, March 13. Forest Lawn of Covina Hills in Covina is in charge of the arrangements.
A spokesperson said flowers and cards can be sent to the corporate office at 2501 East Guasti Road, Ontario, 91761.
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