In 1985, they moved to California, trying their hand in the grocery business, first in South Central Los Angeles, then in Oxnard, before settling in the desert.
Halum and three partners took over the 23,000-square-foot store in 1988 from Alpha Beta, which had closed.
"We adjusted the store to their needs," he said, getting rid of the frozen foods aisle and adding a tortillarilla, a jewelry store and a notary.
He also changed the meat counter, adding pigs feet, tripe, beef tendons, goat meat, smelts, octopus, and other cuts not found in mainstream markets.
This was an advantage for Halum. Although the chains vary their product offerings a little depending on their location, "they are not terribly different from each other," Whalin said. "I would say it's probably less than 15 percent of their merchandise."
Representatives from Albertsons and Vons wouldn't comment on their strategies except to say that they do adjust their stores depending on what customers want.
"We don't change it a lot," added Food 4 Less spokesman Terry O'Neil. "If a store is in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, it's likely that we will have an above-average selection of products that would appeal to that consumer."
The big grocery chains usually don't have stores in the same neighborhoods where ethnic markets are located, said Efrain Romo, an account representative with La Agencia de Orci & Asociados, a Hispanic marketing agency in Los Angeles.
"Independents find an opportunity that way," Romo said by phone. "They can also order things that cater to their customer base, as opposed to the chains, who have to order from the company warehouse."
There are also several chains, such as Gigante, Superior, Fiesta and Vallarta that have the same products as small Latino markets, but with layouts and atmospheres like Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons.
"You can't tell the difference," Romo said.
The Toro Loco concept began in 1998 after Halum bought out his partners and decided to expand. The stores -- in Indio, Mecca, North Shore and Coachella -- are like large convenience stores but with produce and vast meat counters.
"Hispanic clientele like the smaller, family atmosphere and the butcher shops," Halum said. But he knows his stores don't cater to everyone.
"For second- or third-generation Hispanics, this is not what they want," he said, adding that non-Hispanic customers also prefer chain groceries.
Jeffrey Hays, executive director of the Coachella-based Desert Communities Empowerment Zone, said the city needs mainstream grocery stores.
"The demand is going to be here, and Food 4 Less or an Albertsons will draw people in from the outside area as well," he said by phone. "The fact is you have third- and fourth-generation people here who need that."
He added that the city's housing boom in this once rural town means there are a lot of freezers and refrigerators to be filled.
"They have the things I buy," shopper Veronica Nunez, 34, said about Vons before the store closed. "I go to Ranch Market sometimes. I guess I'll shop there more now." Nunez, of Coachella, said she is looking forward to the Food 4 Less.
O'Neil, of Food 4 Less, said the company expects to do well in Coachella.
"There are several Latino markets that do quite a good job there, but our stores out in the valley attract a sizable percentage of Hispanic consumers," he said. "We would never open a store where we didn't think we could make it a success."
Halum isn't afraid of the competition, but he is still eyeing the soon-to-be vacant Vons, where he said he would consider opening a store with a different format.
"When Food 4 Less opens, it will affect us initially, because people like to try something new," he said. "But the same thing happened after the Food 4 Less opened in Indio, and we got our customers there back in six weeks."
ON THE GROW: Coachella had 26,700 people in 2003. It is expected to grow to more than 40,000 people by 2008.
Source: The City of Coachella
SHOPPING EN ESPAŅOL: Some other Latino markets in the Inland Empire:
--Cardenas Markets with 10 stores
--Fiesta Americana with 2 stores
--Maxi-Foods with 3 stores
--Liborios with 2 stores
--El Tapatio with 1 store
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