“This morning a lady sent me an email ... apparently they want to keep buying a lot more.”
Sixty-five years old and sitting comfortably in the office of his Calgary Latin American grocery market, Luis Villatoro is speaking of a corn tortilla product that he supplies.
Thick-rimmed glasses and a close-cropped beard frame his face and his arms are covered in full tattoo sleeves from the shoulders down. Harley-Davidson paraphernalia covers the walls.
“They’re becoming pretty popular here. I started with about a couple hundred cases a week and now we bring about 1,200 cases a week.”
Business hasn’t always been so easy. At the age of 21, he emigrated from Honduras to Canada where he struggled to get ahead and fell into self-destructive behaviours.
But Villatoro eventually managed to build a successful business called La Tiendona that also helps out fellow immigrants.
As a young man, Villatoro says he “used to read a lot about Canada and the kind of life it was here and the opportunities there were” — something Honduras didn’t have.
So, in 1975, after completing the immigration process, Villatoro arrived in Toronto.
“I was doing all kinds of jobs,” he says. “Whatever I had to do.”
During this time his highest pay was $3.35 an hour.
But working hard with little return wasn’t the only challenge.
“Where I come from is family-oriented and then when I came here I felt alone.”
He says depression wasn’t a word they used back then but he struggled with mood changes and, during his first few years in Canada, he “couldn’t get used to the winter.”
Villatoro eventually got a job in the oilsands in Fort McMurray. Although he joined a union and began making upwards of $11 an hour, Villatoro describes this as a bad time of his life — in part, because he “wasn’t used to having that big income and everything.”
“I start to do a lot of things I shouldn’t be doing – did a bit of drugs here and there and then a lot of drinking and everything.”
That lifestyle caught up to him and he decided to move to Calgary where he recovered, got rid of friends and made new ones — “otherwise I would have been in the worst shape.”
Villatoro started working construction. But “a friend of mine told me one day, he said, ‘You know something, the Hispanic community is growing up very rapidly and everything and it would be a good idea to set up a restaurant.’”
The only problem was that, back then, Villatoro couldn’t cook. Even so, the idea of a food-related business had taken root.
During the slow season for construction, Villatoro travelled to Mexico, California and Houston where he investigated the process of importing foods.
Back in Calgary, he found a place for his market and La Tiendona — a Latin American grocery — opened on Nov. 28, 1993.
It’s a date that Villatoro easily recalls. But there’s also another date Villatoro marked on his calendar soon afterwards.
“I went home with $8.40 sales for the whole day,” he says. “That’s enough to discourage.”
Another time, having closed for the weekend, one of the freezers broke down. Villatoro says, “We lost everything. Like $12,000 worth of product, it had to go to the dump.”
“I went home with $8.40 sales for the whole day...That’s enough to discourage.” - Luis Villatoro says.
Villatoro didn’t draw a salary for the first 27 months. Giving up crossed his mind.
But one of his competitors said to him at the time: “You know something? People smarter than you have started businesses like that and they never succeed.”
“That was the thing that kept me going when I wanted to give up,” Villatoro says. “Never tell a guy that.”
“He drove me down to the last breath to keep going.”
His market now extends as far as Manitoba and he imports products for companies that distribute across Canada, doing 10 times more volume then when the business opened.
It isn’t hard to see that the volume has increased. The shelves of La Tiendona are lined with colourful cans and packages of beans, maize, spices, Latin soda’s and hot sauces. Piñatas hang from the ceiling.
There is a small warehouse in the back filled with even more products, including fresh fruits and vegetables.
On a Wednesday morning, the customers seem as plentiful as the products. Villatoro greets them warmly as they enter, laughing and smiling often.
His daughter, Ivy Villatoro, says that growing up, everyone in the Latin American community seemed to know who her dad was.
“He’s been around for so long that people started coming to him for other things,” she says. “Like, ‘Hey do you know a good mechanic?’”
“He’s just a fountain of knowledge and I think in that regard he definitely helps out fellow immigrants or people who have just arrived. It’s definitely a gateway to home for a lot of people.”
It’s the kind of gateway that Villatoro could have used back in Toronto. He also knows that familiar food can go a long way in making immigrants feel welcome, especially during the holidays.
As a result, Villatoro has managed to build a loyal customer base. “I still have customers from when I first opened.”
Ivy says that people actually go out of their way to come to La Tiendona.
“I think a lot of it just has to do with the charisma and the personality he has and just how he faces every challenge with calculated positivity.”
This story also appeared in the Calgary Herald as part of a partnership with the Calgary Journal. This piece is part of an ongoing series looking at new Canadians and how they’re changing the city.
- By Blaise Kemna