Friday, Feb. 6, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Inside the family-owned Los Compadres Meat Market on Tropicana Avenue, the brassy thump of banda music mingles with the smell of raw beef — an undiluted slice of Mexican life.
Blue-collar workers in tattered, paint-stained jeans scan the menu pushing plates of tacos and tortas while shoppers stroll past rows of traditional staples — dried hibiscus flowers for agua fresca, pork skins for chicharrones, lard for tamales and flour tortillas. Against a back wall, bakery ovens are filling the room with the sweet scents of pan dulce.
For two decades, Flaviano Trujillo’s cramped little shop — barely bigger than a convenience store — has catered to nostalgic Latino shoppers seeking a Mexican touchstone. And until a few years ago, his family business had reaped the benefits of the valley’s teeming immigrant community with slim competition.
Trujillo, a Guadalajara native who moved to Las Vegas in the 1990s after a six-year stint as a butcher in Pomona, Calif. — once saw great hope for his family’s company. Just eight years ago, the Trujillos owned a chain of six grocery stores dominating the east side that had a payroll of 300 employees. The family even planned to open a seventh location on Rancho Drive and Cheyenne Avenue.
But welcomed by the valley’s burgeoning Latino population, other stores opened and expanded. Trujillo took stock of the competition, called a halt to his own seventh store and even closed four existing locations as he retrenched. Today he operates two — a medium-size full-service grocery store at Stewart Avenue and Lamb Boulevard, and the meat market on Tropicana.
Imagine his despair then, when two months ago a new grocery store opened directly across the street from his market. It wasn't just any grocery store. A successful California chain of grocery stores, also owned by a Mexican-American family, had decided to move into Las Vegas — and planted its fourth store directly across the street from Trujillo’s humble meat market.
Trujillo refuses to visit the Cardenas Market and take its measure.
“I think he’s worried they’ll think he’s spying on them,” said his daughter, Faviola Trujillo, 30, who manages the family business. She said the shop’s revenue dropped by 30 percent the week Cardenas opened.
“Dad was worried,” Faviola Trujillo said. “Sometimes their meat is $2 cheaper than ours is. It’s hard to compete with that.”
And cheaper prices aren’t Cardenas’ only advantage. While Yelp reviewers complain that Los Compadres’ staff doesn’t speak English, Cardenas has fully bilingual employees who even wear name tags greeting customers with “Hola” and “Hello.”
“(Los Compadres) is too small, and it doesn’t offer enough. Why would you want to shop there?” Hector Velasco said in Spanish as he loaded his SUV with groceries from Cardenas this week. “I don’t think it’ll be long before that place shuts down.”
The Trujillo family’s plight is a common one — small to mid-size supermarkets often get squeezed out when big box stores move in. Because they can’t compete on price, mom-and-pops have to emphasize convenience or customer service to survive.
And, indeed, the Trujillos have their loyal customers as well. “I feel more comfortable here,” said Idarilis Blanco, 41, a frequent customer. “In other stores I don’t feel right.”
The Trujillo-Cardenas competition exemplifies the tension between small, locally owned businesses and the larger operations that move here from out of state.
“It really follows the trends that more Anglo supermarkets saw years ago when Walmart came in,” said John Restrepo, a local real estate analyst with RGC Economics. “Even the medium-size chains like Albertsons and Smith’s couldn’t survive. Competing with price is almost impossible, so the only thing these shops can do is differentiate themselves and make people feel right at home.”
Trujillo’s employees are trying to lure back customers by playing up the convenience of shopping at a smaller store. They also emphasize the quality of their meat, which is shipped in twice a week from Arizona.
So far the strategy seems to be working — revenue has inched back up about 5 percent since last year’s dive.
“Christmas was pretty busy,” Faviola said. “It wasn’t as dead as we thought it was going to be."
Meanwhile, she and her sister Gabriela, 26, have a backup plan. With help from their dad, the girls have opened a chain of taquerias popular for their rustic street foods, cocktails and two-level lounge. The marinated meat, of course, comes from Los Compadres.
The new Taco y Taco shops have a lounge-ish vibe and are a stark contrast to their dad’s old-fashioned meat shop, where the walls are garishly painted bright yellow with star-shaped piñatas dangling from the ceiling.
He wishes his daughters would have adopted his sense of decor.
“I’m like, 'No, dad,’” Faviola said with a soft chuckle. Her younger sister chimed in: “We wanted something more modern.”
Taco y Taco’s menu caused Flaviano Trujillo even more indigestion: items there include vegetarian dishes.