The supermarket chain Mi Pueblo opened a 35,000-square-foot store in East Palo Alto last Saturday, filling a gaping shopping hole that has existed for three decades in the multicultural city.
"It looks first rate. The food looks fresh," customer Jim Olstad said Tuesday morning.
He stopped in to try the counter-service Mexican eatery inside the store.
"It might be a new favorite restaurant stop," he said.
The supermarket is located in the Ravenswood 101 Shopping Center off of U.S. Highway 101 and University Avenue. East Palo Alto's last full-service supermarket closed in the 1970s.
Brightly painted in primary colors on the outside, the new market on the inside features vibrant murals along its walls and strings of flags overhead.
Mi Pueblo's selection mirrors that of a traditional American supermarket, but with a focus on Hispanic food products. There are fresh concha pastries and large cases of meats, including pigs' feet, along with cereal, Coca Cola and neatly organized produce. There's even a small assortment of Asian foods.
This week, the atmosphere at the market seemed mild-mannered during the day. But Mi Pueblo came alive at dinner time, thanks to the smell of carnitas wafting out into the parking lot.
Many residents stopped by after work to pick up ingredients for dinner.
Gabriel Hernandez came all the way from Sunnyvale because he said this location has a better selection than the Mi Pueblo in Mountain View.
"We needed it for a long, long time," East Palo Alto Police Officer Tracy Frey said. "Older people come here. There are a lot of young families, too. You can imagine how hard it is to have to pack up, get in the car and drive to another city."
East Palo Alto residents said that before Mi Pueblo opened, they traveled to Redwood City, Mountain View or Menlo Park for simple grocery runs.
"Every time we had to go to the store, we had to go to San Antonio" Shopping Center in Mountain View, said Antwon Watts of East Palo Alto. But he said he dealt with racial profiling whenever he went there.
Questions about race have also been brought up with respect to Mi Pueblo. At an East Palo Alto City Council meeting last month, some residents expressed fears that the market would cater only to Latino shoppers.
The city's population is approximately 59 percent Hispanic, 22 percent black, 7 percent Pacific Islander, 6 percent white, 4 percent Asian and the rest "other," according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This week, some customers advocated for a racially mixed workforce at Mi Pueblo, saying it would be an important part of the grocery store's assimilation into the community.
"It would be nice if there were black people working there. It feels uncomfortable," said Grace Watts of East Palo Alto after a trip to the new grocery store.
"I think it's nice that it's coming in, as long as they hire minorities other than themselves," said Darrel Matkins, an East Palo Alto resident.
According to Perla Rodriguez, vice president of public affairs for Mi Pueblo, the company went "above and beyond" what was required when it was recruiting applicants. She said the company worked in tandem with the City of East Palo Alto, putting fliers up at City Hall and hosting English-speaking information sessions. Rodriguez said that despite heavy advertising, the sessions were poorly attended.
Nonetheless, more than 40 percent of the store's 200 employees are East Palo Alto residents, 5 percent more than the city required, Rodriguez said.
Mi Pueblo opened its first market in 1991 in San Jose. The East Palo Alto store, located in the former Circuit City space, is the chain's 14th location. The store is open 365 days a year from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.