By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
A typical photograph of a food market in Mexico commonly shows a table, stall or blanket with heaps of colorful fruits, vegetables and, of course, chilies ranging from green to yellows to fiery red. Vendors are depicted in traditional dress. But these eye-catching food suppliers are increasingly competing with modern supermarkets all over Mexico. Large food department stores, stocking everything from prepared soup to nuts and a variety of other products and services, can be found in all cities and the majority of towns.
The first organization to establish supermarkets in Mexico was founded by Señor Lázaro Chedraui Chaya and his wife, Doña Anita Caram de Chedraui, in 1920 in Xalapa, Veracruz. The original name, Port of Beirut, was changed soon after to Casa Chedraui. The family concentrated first on adding more products and services to the Xalapa store, and once the original location reached supermarket size with a staff of 70 people in 1970, the name was changed to Super Chedraui. The following year, the store reached megamarket size with the addition of more departments including clothing, appliances and hardware and added 180 employees.
In the 1980’s, Chedraui stores began branching out from Veracruz and then proliferating around the country. In 2005, the corporation bought out all 29 of the French Carrefour supermarkets that were located in Mexico. As of March, 2015, there were 217 branches including 150 Chedraui and 51 Super Chedraui markets, employing more than 35,000 people.
Although Chedraui developed the first supermarket chain in Mexico, it is certainly not the largest chain in the country. That distinction belongs to the ubiquitous American multinational giant, Walmart, or as it is known in Mexico, Walmart de Mexico or Wal-Mex. Founded in 1962 in Arkansas by Sam Walton (the namesake of the Walmart warehouse stores, Sam’s Club), within five years the Waltons had opened 24 stores in the U.S. By 1980, Walmart had 276 stores and 21,000 employees and was one of the fastest growing companies in the world. And in the 1990’s Walmart began to expand all over the world.
One of the first international ventures was a joint venture with the Mexican company Cifra; together the companies opened the first Sam’s Club in Mexico City in 1991. Walmart and Sam’s Club spread like wildfire in Mexico in the next two decades. By 2010 there were over 1000 stores. At present, there are approximately 2,300 stores including 895 Bodega Aurrera Express, 462 Bodega Aurrera, and 251 Walmart Supercenters. The Walmart Supercenters have become more than just a place to shop. For many families, the stores have become a place for them to spend Saturday nights – grazing from the snack bars, trying on clothes, and listening to the latest music.
The company that is trying to give Walmart a run for its money is Soriana. Founded in Torreon in 1968 by the Bourque brothers, the company prides itself on being completely Mexican financed and administered. After its founding in the state of Coahuila, the chain began to expand into other primarily northern States: Durango (1971), Chihuahua (1972), Nuevo Leon (1974), and Tamaulipas (1984). In the following decades, Soriana began to establish a presence in the central States. In 2007 Soriana gobbled up 200 stores from the now defunct chain Gigante and this year was positioning itself to buy an additional 160 stores from the struggling corporation Comercial Mexicana. Presently, there are Soriana stores in 30 states, including 510 HíperMercados that rival the Walmart Supercenters. Only Walmart has surpassed Soriana in Mexico supermarket sales.
Another American multinational chain recently moved into Mexico is Costco. The members-only warehouse Price Club was first established in San Diego in 1976 by Sol and Robert Price, and Costco, the sister brand, was launched by the Price company in Seattle, Washington, in 1983. The first Price Club was opened in Mexico City in 1992 – shortly before Price Clubs and Costcos were merged and the Costco name was adopted for all the stores.
Costco’s strategy of competition is very different from that of Walmart and Soriana. Rather than providing a range of stores catering to buyers in different economic strata, Costco only targets upper middle-class Mexicans, providing much the same products and services from warehouse to warehouse. Many of the 34 Mexican Costco shopping warehouses are located in major cities with affluent populations, including 2 in Guadalajara, 3 in the area of Monterrey, and 6 in greater Mexico City, plus one in each of the nearby cities of Toluca, Cuernavaca and Puebla. Costcos are also located in areas that host “snow birds” from north of the border, including Los Cabos, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, where the Costco store is within eyesight of the docks for city-size cruise ships. The Costco in Acapulco was closed in 2013 after hurricane damage and looting; with that closure there are no warehouses located or presently planned in southern Mexico. Unfortunately, the rumor that Costco is coming soon to Oaxaca or Salina Cruz appears to be wishful thinking.
For the novice nonMexican supermarket shopper, differences between the experience in Mexico and their home country are often pleasantly surprising. Rather than baked goods in plastic bags that have traveled long distances from factory to shelf, an in-store bakery commonly produces delicious breads, cakes, pastries and tortillas that are still warm when placed on display. To buy them, grab a metal tray and tongs (look near the staffed counter to find them), fill the tray, and bring them to the counter to be priced and bagged.
Yoghurt and cheese lovers will find a wider variety than north of the border. Mexican cheeses such as panela, oaxaca, and chihuahua are delectable. Those watching their waistlines can be sure that products labelled “light” are reduced in fat and often sugars as well. And oenophiles can find excellent wines from Argentina and Chile at relatively low prices. Don’t look for eggs or milk in the refrigerator section. Egg cartons are stacked on a counter or shelf at room temperature – and the eggs taste like they come from chickens!
On the other hand, compared to the more traditional mercados, fresh fruits and vegetables at supermarkets tend to be underripe or overripe, and fish is commonly either frozen or far from fresh. And for a person in a hurry, checking out can be a nightmare, since the checkout clerks function as bankers, lottery card dispensers and, in the Soriana stores, explainers of the complicated promotional cards.
So where should you shop for food in Huatulco? We recommend the small tiendas and mercados for just-picked fruits and vegetables and for fish that slept in the ocean the previous night. For meat, go to a butcher shop (carnicería), where the butchers cut the meat before your eyes exactly as asked. Shop at Soriana or Super Chedraui for baked goods and about once a week for dairy, pastas from Italy, other international items, wines, and if you must, food that no one really needs – chips, sodas, and canned vegetables. When we drive from Mexico City to Huatulco, we always stop at – you guessed it – Costco.