Industry News

[March 12, 2007]

North 25th neighborhood abuzz on Fiesta Mart's successor

(Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Mar. 11--Judith Nees hates to see Fiesta Mart go.

"Walk in there, and it feels like walking into another world," said Nees, who lives near the store on North 25th Street.

Shoppers can fill their carts with cactus leaves, poblano peppers or Mexican sweetbread -- ethnic items popular with Hispanics.

On a recent Saturday, Leeana Tran and Vincent Salazar stood watching crawfish crawl in a large tank.

"We come here just for those," they said, pointing at the critters. "We actually live pretty far from here."

They've also heard that Houston-based Fiesta Mart has sold its lease on the 38,000-square-foot building.

That means Fiesta Mart, here since 2002, soon will be leaving.

But who will be arriving is a question in pursuit of an answer.

Nees said the identity of the buyer is a hot topic in her neighborhood.

"Who bought Fiesta Mart?" she said. "I hear that all the time."

For their part, company officials aren't saying.

"I've got nothing to tell you. We'll put out a press release when the time comes," said Chris Carmouche, general counsel for Fiesta Mart.

"I can't talk about it," store manager Jeff Williams said.

"We're not ready to announce anything," said longtime spokesman Bernie Murphy, who said he doesn't know the buyer's identity.

Talk to employees taking breaks on the Fiesta Mart steps, and they'll say they don't know who bought the store or will mention different names as possibilities. Williams said he has not discussed the sale with them.

Fiesta Mart likes to do business in ethnically diverse neighborhoods, and its location in North Waco fits that description.

Waco City Council District 4, which encompasses most of North Waco, is 35 percent Hispanic, 34 percent black and 29 percent white.

Cliff Gholston, who works in the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said a zone around Fiesta Mart is closer to 43 percent Hispanic.

Fiesta Mart "has done wonders for the North 25th Street area ever since it opened," said Ernesto Fraga, who publishes the Tiempo newspaper locally that aims at Hispanic readers.

He said Fiesta Mart attracts shoppers to an area where they can buy Mexican goods at Bertha's bakery or burritos at Adriana and Janette's restaurant. They also can visit one of several Hispanic-owned garages and small shops.

Fraga said he's heard talk and speculation about who has bought the Fiesta Mart lease in Waco, but nothing concrete.

Will the new owner focus on Hispanic shoppers?

"I would hope so, but I don't expect it," said Fraga, adding that it takes thorough knowledge of Hispanic tastes to make such a store work. Fiesta Mart has it but is leaving.

An independent moving into a single store, he said, would be facing off against this market's dominant player, H-E-B, which is making strides in meeting Hispanic tastes.

Fiesta Mart officials are not talking, so one can only wonder why they decided to sell their lease in Waco.

Bill Greer, spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute trade organization, said ethnic groceries are becoming more commonplace to meet the needs of this country's growing Hispanic population.

"The industry has been reaching out to Hispanics pretty strongly the last 15 years. Some have done very well; some have learned the hard way it's not as easy as it looks," Greer said, adding that Hispanics have tastes that vary with their country of origin and time in this country.

Fiesta Mart has a good reputation, Greer said, as does another Texas-based chain, Minyard Food Stores.

Minyard has opened 23 Latino-themed grocery stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that do business under the Carnival name. Many were former Safeway stores the company bought in neighborhoods becoming heavily Hispanic, spokesman Poul Heilmann said.

Although Minyard owns stores under three names -- Carnival, Minyard and Sack-N-Save -- Carnival "will be our primary growth vehicle," Heilmann said, stressing the importance of ethnic stores.

But contrary to some speculation, Carnival is not growing into Waco, at least not now. It has not bought the Fiesta Mart lease, Heilmann said.

Nor has H-E-B added that site to its inventory, spokeswoman Leslie Lockett said, adding that speculation abounds among H-E-B officials as to who bought the Fiesta Mart lease.

Natalie King, who lives about five minutes from Fiesta Mart, said she hopes the building does not remain vacant for a lengthy period.

Fiesta Mart officials have not commented on how much lag time there will be, if any, between one store closing and another opening.

"A store helps keep the neighborhood alive," King said.

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