In the five years since Samuel and Aida Berumen purchased Zacatecas Market, they’ve seen many businesses come and go in downtown Tooele. But the Berumens have not only weathered a recession, they’ve made their market on the corner of Vine and Main one of the brightest stars in a dimming neighborhood.
The secrets of their success aren’t really secrets. The couple work long hours seven days a week, appeal to a broad base of Hispanic and non-Hispanic customers, and make everything they do personal.
“I think it has helped that people know we will be open, we’re always here,” said Aida. “And we keep the store well stocked so they also know they will find what they need.”
Zacatecas Market is named for the Zacatecas region of central Mexico where Samuel and Aida are from. Both grew up in the small town of Susticacan, though ironically, Aida, now 28, and Sam, 33, met for the first time in Salt Lake City.
When Aida was 9 her family immigrated to Salt Lake City. About a year later Sam’s family moved to Reseda, Calif.
The two met at a family gathering in a Salt Lake City park in 1998. Sam’s mother sent him to live in Salt Lake City with an uncle to get away from gangs in California, and Sam’s uncle happened to be married to Aida’s aunt. In 2007, Sam heard from friends that a small market in Tooele called La Hispaña Market was up for sale.
“Sam had been working as a cook at a Chinese restaurant in West Valley City for 12 years,” said Aida. “We was tired of cooking and working for somebody else, he really wanted to own his own business.”
The couple drove out to Tooele one morning to check out La Hispaña, with Aida questioning Sam’s sanity for even considering such a venture. When they arrived, customers were waiting outside by the door for the store to open, and Aida’s opposition to the plan softened.
“The Hispanic population out here is really small,” said Aida. “And Tooele reminded me of a small village in Mexico — the kind of place where everybody knows everybody.”
After purchasing the market, the couple spent a week cleaning up the place with help from their family. New products had to be brought in because some of the products on the shelves were beyond their expiration dates. The Berumens also got help from friends that own Hispanic markets in Salt Lake to find distributors that could supply a wide variety of merchandise.
Zacatecas Market features fresh meat and produce, spices, canned goods including salsas and sauces, candy, fresh sweet breads, CDs, DVDs, wallets, perfumes, drinks, frozen treats, dairy products and piñatas. It’s a product mix that ranges from items familiar to non Hispanics — taco shells, tortillas — to rarer ingredients unique to Mexican regional cuisine —cactus pears and chayote. They began offering freshly made tacos and tortas, grilled beef on a flat roll, for customers who wanted a hot meal, a year after taking over the business.
And they take requests.
“I have had people come in with an empty candy wrapper from Mexico and want to know if we can get that candy for them,” said Aida. “If my suppliers can get it, we will order it for them.”
Since buying the store, the Berumens have done no advertising. They have no website and don’t use social media, nor do they offer sales, coupons or frequent-shopper cards.
“It has all been by word of mouth,” said Aida. “We keep the store stocked, people come in and find what they need, and then they go tell other people.”
Aida boils their success down to hard work and keeping the store open long hours — something the previous owner didn’t do.
Aida and Sam often work opposing hours. One of them stays home with their four children, ranging in ages from 3 to 12, while the other works at the store.
“We don’t even take vacations together,” said Aida.
The Berumens try to keep their prices competitive with local supermarkets by buying their food directly from wholesalers in California instead of going through a distributor.
Parking, a problem cited by many downtown merchants, is a little easier than other locations for Zacatecas because the market opens on to Vine Street adjacent to street parking.
“The on-street parking does fill up at times with people headed for other stores,” said Aida. “Our customers do complain when they have to park in back.”
The couple have one other employee that helps with the store, Wilson Lopez. Lopez sometimes opens in the morning while Aida or Sam pick up fresh bakery items in Salt Lake and bring them to the store. Lopez also fills in behind the meat counter.
The three of them keep the place open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, and they never close for holidays.
“I think that helps our business a lot — people know that we will be open,” said Aida.
While Zacatecas is a Hispanic market, the majority of its customers are non Hispanic, according to Aida.
“We get a lot of non Hispanic people coming in that have been to Mexico and are looking for the right things to fix their favorite authentic food,” said Aida.
The biggest seller at the market is fresh carne asada, a beef steak marinated using a proprietary recipe concocted in the store.
Perhaps the aspect that most distinguishes Zacatecas from other downtown shops is that it’s rare to go inside and not see at least one other customer.
“Over five years, we have come to know our customers and they are friends now,” said Aida. “It’s nice to have time to talk to them when they come in.”
JoAnn Valdez, of Stansbury Park, was at the store last Friday buying spices.
“Their ground spices, especially the chili powders, are very good,” said Valdez.
Nathan DeLaCruz, a transplant to Tooele from San Diego, said Zacatecas reminds him of the neighborhood markets he grew up with.
“There were little Hispanic markets all over San Diego. This place reminds me of them,” said DeLaCruz. “I stop in often for their tacos and the best horchata.”