Marinette couple draws on vision, help from SCORE, to open Leo's Market in Marinette

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When Salina and Eduardo Hernandez of Marinette wanted corn tortillas to make a favorite recipe, they had to travel to Green Bay. They hoped that a Hispanic grocery store would locate in the area, but as the years passed without that happening, they made it their dream.

“We thought about it for about five years and built up our savings to make it happen,” Salina explained. “By 2020, we were ready to go forward, but with the pandemic it wasn’t a possibility. We had a lot of hardships and had to use our savings to make ends meet.”

Although their savings were reduced, the plans for a store began in earnest in 2021.  They contacted the Green Bay SCORE Chapter and were matched with Mentor Paul Carron. 

“I had just paid for an online business class when I found out about SCORE and that all the same advice was available at no cost,” Salina said. “I talked to Paul on Facetime for several hours, and as I asked questions, he gave great advice on what we needed to do to get started.”

They had a name, “Leo’s Mercado,” named after her son, Leo, but needed information on licensing, forming an LLC, obtaining a tax identification number, and best practices. The couple found out that they were eligible for a State of Wisconsin $10,000 Bounceback grant, and with the help provided by SCORE, began to write a business plan.

Research indicated that the area was becoming more diverse and that the Hispanic population in the target area had grown to 2.3%. It was quite a change from Salina’s high school years. She was born n Marinette in 1995 and felt like she was a rarity in the community. 

“When I went to school, there was no other culture,” she said. ” Now when you go into the schools, you can see how diverse it is. Starting a Hispanic market is a huge deal, and it shows how far we have come.”

As they planned the store, it was decided that Eduardo, who came to Marinette from Mexico eight years ago, would be the face of the store. Salina is fluent in English only,  while Eduardo speaks three languages and is in a better position to serve customers.  Communication with the Hispanic community is considered vital to the success of the store.

That meant that one of the first things they did when planning what inventory to buy was to survey Hispanic people who had expressed interest in the store on Facebook. 

“We also met with families to determine what they’d like to see in the store and worked with distributors and reps and they recommended items. We wanted to steer away from items that can be purchased in a regular grocery store,” Salina noted.

That meant stocking unique like Mexican soda, green baby bananas, unique seasonings and sauces, plantains, Mexican bread, and fresh tortillas from Chicago. 

Because they were on a limited budget, they said they were fortunate to have a supportive landlord who worked with them as they designed the store. 

“We made do with what we had available and a lot of our carts, racks, and the cash counter are homemade. By reusing things we already had and building others, we saved a lot of money so that it could be spent on products,” Salina said.  

They were able to proceed without getting a loan, but Salina said that they did obtain a line of credit as recommended by Carron.  They haven’t had to use it yet, but she says that one thing that Carron said has certainly been true.

“He said that everything will cost more than you expect it to,” Salina added.

One of those unexpected things was a huge inventory loss when the electrician who was installing the sign didn’t turn the power back on when he was done.  An entire cooler of food had to be disposed of just when they were about to open.

It is occurrences like that that have resulted in anxiety as they try to become established. 

Salina says that their bookkeeper has provided sales projections, and it is hard to remember that it takes time for people to find out about Leo’s Mercado. She focuses on the goals they have set as her husband works at the store and she works fulltime in banking during the day and does paperwork at night while spending time with their two small children.

“We have a weekly goal that we’ve met so far and an ultimate goal for the year,” she said. “There are also random goals like buying another refrigerator, getting a cargo van, setting up a kitchen so we can sell prepared meals, and getting an alcohol license.”

The ability to sell prepared foods and other “grab and go” meals like marinated meats and Mexican dishes will be a boost to sales. Once they are able to do those things, they are confident that they will attract not only the Hispanic population, but also others who are interested in trying new foods. 

“Our motto is, ‘Bringing Family Home,’ and we want people of all cultures to come here and feel like they have a place here. We are very people-oriented and our reviews online have been amazing.  Everyone talks about how nice, kind, and helpful we are,” Salina said.

She said that her first challenge will be letting more people know about the store. They have a high-traffic location near big box stores and think that will be a plus. Other marketing includes social media, flyers, and communication within the community. 

In the interim, she noted, “I have had to let a lot of things go that I haven’t had time for – things like household chores, car maintenance, and friendships. But once we get things going, it will all be worth it.”

Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and Past District Director for SCORE, Wisconsin.