ST. CHARLES — About a mile from the Schnucks across from Lindenwood University sits a less visible grocery store that caters to Latino customers. It’s about the size of a supermarket’s produce section. La Guadalupana’s narrow aisles are lined with crowded shelves holding food with Spanish labels: salsa verde, semita larga, chile morita and more.
The store also sells food seen in other grocery stores, like oatmeal and ramen noodles. Owner Horacio Esparza says he thinks the family environment attracts customers more than his products do. He strives to welcome everyone with a chipper, “Hola, ¿Cómo estás?” and greets familiar customers by name.
“They come in here because they want to hear our language,” Esparza said. “They come in for the contact with the person in the front.”
Population growth in the area has created a greater demand for businesses like Hispanic grocery stores. The Latino community in St. Charles County has grown by 35%, or about 3,512 people, since 2012, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates. By comparison, the Latino community in neighboring St. Louis County grew by 20% over the same amount of time.
“The more the population grows, the bigger the need there is to have culturally appropriate, as well as linguistically appropriate, services,” said Gabriela Ramirez-Arellano, of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis. “It's not just about having Hispanic products but having a mix of products from the various countries. Mexicans are the highest Hispanic population, but there's also a growing number of Puerto Ricans and Colombians and Spaniards, so as those individual nationalities also increase, that will further increase the demand for more specific products.”
Business is booming
Latino-owned businesses made up only about 2% of businesses in St. Charles County in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Experts are waiting for the 2020 census to produce updated figures, and they expect to see significant growth.
The number of Latino-owned businesses grew by 160% in St. Charles County between 2007 and 2012 — the sharpest increase among its peer regions, according to the Missouri Economic and Research Information Center. During that same time period, the number of Latino-owned businesses in the state grew by 42%.
Ness Sandoval, an associate professor and demographic researcher at St. Louis University, said he expects the number of Latino entrepreneurs in St. Charles County will grow in tandem with the Hispanic population.
“If you’re an entrepreneur and you live in St. Charles County, you’re not going to put your business in the city. You’re going to start your business in the county,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval said Latinos moving into the St. Louis metro area tend to be more attracted to the suburbs because of affordability factors and because other Latinos recommend the area.
Esparza moved to St. Charles from Chicago in 1999 to live near family in the area. He said he appreciates the peacefulness of the suburb and thinks it’s a great place for his family to live in and do business.
It made sense to open the store in a smaller community, Esparza said. He said the store cannot compete with the vast product selection of a larger supermarket, but he can offer a more personal experience.
Ramirez-Arellano said most entrepreneurs want to work close to home and will prioritize their business’s location accordingly.
That was the reason Angel Requejo’s family opened their Mexican restaurant, Jose'peños, in St. Charles County. They weren’t sure they could afford the space they needed to operate in O’Fallon, but an opportunity presented itself at the right time, Requejo said.
The Requejo family had worked in Mexican restaurants for years before opening their own restaurant. Requejo, who is part owner, said understanding tax laws has been one of the biggest challenges. He’s turned to the O'Fallon Chamber of Commerce & Industries, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis and his own network for help.
The Greater St. Charles County Chamber of Commerce does not offer bilingual resources, so its staff refer people who prefer to speak Spanish to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, president and CEO Scott Tate said.
The Hispanic chamber serves metro area business owners, many in the restaurant and construction industries, and helps them connect with the right resources, Ramirez-Arellano said. Challenges for those in the Latino community vary depending on the person’s English proficiency and legal status.
“Besides the obvious language and culture, I also think that there are some differences in the way that businesses are done in our countries,” Ramirez-Arellano said. “If you don't know the system here in the U.S., or even here in the state of Missouri, that can be a barrier and a challenge for you.”
When Esparza’s family first opened La Guadalupana in 2001, he worked a second job during the first couple of years to keep the business running, he said.
“It was hard to start. We didn’t have a lot of money to start,” Esparza said.
Word spread about the store as the community grew, and within a couple of years, he had a customer base strong enough to support his business.
“The community knows about us,” Esparza said. “We treat them like family.”
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