Hi-Lo: For Latinos, More Than A Grocery

Ripe guineos verde green bananas Dominican olive oil, dulce de leche candy, Embajador chocolate, and Yaucono coffee, shrink-wrapped for freshness.

Photograph courtesy of David Salafia

Photograph courtesy of David Salafia

Shoppers who push through the swinging metal doors of Hi-Lo Foods are on a mission: to fill their carts with foods like these that they often can’t find anywhere else. “They have everything I want,” said Damaris Pimentel, 31, who treks monthly from Charlestown to the Centre Street market some call the center of Boston’s Caribbean community. “Sometimes I go to other places and it takes me forever.”

Forty years ago, the Hi-Lo was your average white-bread chain Sklars Market, and it served mostly Eastern European and Irish neighbors. Store manager Bill Jordan, 62, of Jamaica Plain, who’s worked at the store since it was built, has seen it change ownership and names several times; John Knapp Jr., who’s owned it for 33 years, named it Hi-Lo about 25 years ago.

But as Spanish-speaking newcomers arrived and the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood changed, the store’s flavor changed along with it, said Jordan. Today, the Hi-Lo’s crowded aisles are stacked with hard-to-find cookies, produce, sodas, meats, and spices from all over the Caribbean and Latin and South America. Reflecting its Latin flavor on the exterior, a crew of young painters was busy last week painting a massive, Caribbean-inspired mural in colors that echo the fruits and spices inside.

But more than a place to stock up on food, the Hi-Lo is a social center for the local Latino community, where customers run into friends and family and can immerse in their language and culture. “You don’t see your friends for 10 years you come here, you see them,” said Sergio Vega, a store security guard. Pimentel, who came here from the Dominican Republic, said she loves finding staples such as yucca up front. “I like shopping here,” said Pimentel, plump aloe leaves poking out of her overloaded cart. “It makes me more comfortable. Mostly everybody speaks Spanish.”

Jordan said he doesn’t advertise: He has word-of-mouth power. “High value, low prices,” Jordan said. “They can come in and feel comfortable. They can speak their own language and they can buy all the products from their particular country. It’s a winning combination.” Hi-Lo is not about chi-chi foods prettily packaged for adventurous Anglo cooks, foodies who frequent exotic co-ops and drool over “The Naked Chef.” Nothing is chic or color-coordinated here. The foods are staples for people far from home, people who bargain shop and call friends about sales. But the shoppers are also a diverse bunch: They could roll up in a shiny SUV or on a city bus.

Some neighbors have suggested Hi-Lo go for the specialty niche, said Valerie Grabiel, former director of the Hyde/Jackson Square Main Street group, who is working with the grocery to spruce up its storefront and helped it get a city grant. “I’ve had people come to me and say `What can we do with the Hi-Lo? They could be the Bread and Circus of ethnic food!’ ” Grabiel said, laughing.

But those people don’t get it, said Aileen Duggan, Main Street’s new director. “Hi-Lo sells what anybody else would call specialty foods, but they’re selling them as staples. It is a regular supermarket to all the people who shop there.” Hi-Lo is an insider’s take on Caribbean cuisine and culture. Everyone is welcome its 40 employees are happy to advise on how to boil yucca, blend frozen mango pulp, or cook with Sofritos but the store isn’t geared for the masses. Its shelves cater to the tastes of Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, Mexicans, and other Spanish speakers.

The evolution from a mainstream to Latin market was gradual, Jordan said. Immigrant customers wanted foods he didn’t stock. Faced with JP’s shifting demographics in the 1970s, he had a choice: change and prosper, or stand still and possibly die. So Jordan, whose wife is Puerto Rican, took a Spanish immersion class and started chasing down requests. Soon, Goya beans and Bustelo coffee filled the shelves, goat meat and pigs ears appeared in the coolers, and plantains were prominent on the produce table. “You gotta go with it,” Jordan said. “If you want to do something and be successful, you have to go at it 100 percent.” Duggan said Jordan’s success comes from understanding his customers’ needs and striving to meet them. “That’s real neighborhood customer service.”

Jordan, who can tick off products and explain which are favorites in which countries, said transforming the Hi-Lo into a Latin food mecca has paid off, and customers come from as far as Maine and Cape Cod to stock up. “When you live in a country and you go the supermarket, you take it for granted. You know what to expect,” Jordan said. But that basic comfort often eludes immigrants. Ricardo Austrich, president of the city’s Latin American Grocers Association, said the store also gives customers glimpses into each other’s cuisines. “You get a sense of an interchange of ideas and a different way of eating,” he said. “You pass the word when you can find things you can’t find in other places.”

The outside of the store reflects its spirit. The back is covered with a huge mural by the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Rivera Garcia. Painted in 1984 and renovated last summer by the city’s youth Mural Crew, it depicts three mythical figures of the Taino people, the Indians who were essentially wiped out by the mid-1500s after the arrival of Spanish settlers. The Garcia mural, which grew out of Boston’s relationship with Dorado, Puerto Rico, affirmed JP and Hi-Lo as the heart of Boston’s Latino community, Grabiel said. “This was the place they chose.” The new Mural Crew masterpiece’s wild-colored banana leaves and tropical birds now cover the store’s faded front. Jordan hopes the new look makes his customers feel even more at home. “It will give it more identity,” he said. “The feeling that this is their market, it means a lot. It’s not like any other supermarket. It’s not like you’re going to see Del Monte peas” here.

by Paysha Stockton

Copyright © 2004 Globe Newspaper Company. Reprinted with permission.