New Milton-Freewater grocery a Super boost for city

Milton-Freewater's Super Mex adds a local option for groceries and Mexican specialties as well as a draw to keep shoppers here.

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A SUPER CENTER---New stores open in M-F. April 2, 2011 Jeff Horner Photo

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A display of products greet customers as they arrive at Milton-Freewater's fresh new store, SuperMex. April 2, 2011

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At five pounds for a dollar for naranjas, customers fill their bags from a tall outside bin on opening day at the newly opened Super Mex Market in Milton-Freewater. April 2, 2011

MILTON-FREEWATER -- You wouldn't know from the enthusiastic energy at new store Super Mex on Saturday that the crush of customers packing avocados the size of small squash, bottles of fruity-flavored Jarritos, fresh meat and bulk laundry detergent to the checkout counter had spent an extra hour waiting outside for the doors to open.

"We had a little bit of a delay," store Supervisor Lorena Avila explained during a brief break from the chaos of the market's grand opening. "We just weren't quite ready."

The delay deterred no one. Shoppers waited outside, collecting giveaway hats, T-shirts and water courtesy of local Coke and Pepsi distributors before getting a peek at the transformation from the former Hollywood Video into a market that offers everyday staples, as well as Mexican imports hard to find in the U.S. chain stores.

As for that hourlong delay: It was only half the time of the round-trip journey Milton-Freewater area residents were making just to get to a Super Mex before the local store opened Saturday at 21 N. Columbia St.

Milton-Freewater's store is the third in the family of markets owned by Jesus Higadera. The other two are located in Pasco. The business is also an accompaniment to the restaurant next door, Super Antojitos, which is owned by Higadera's father, Jose Diaz. The restaurant had opened late last year and quickly became known for its decadent array of mouth-watering baked goods, but had been closed reportedly for building work. Saturday's opening of Super Mex -- El Pueblo Market also marked the grand re-opening of Super Antojitos. A Super Pizza is reportedly in the works next to the market.

The expansion of Super Mex and the opening of the other ventures are a welcome sight to a community in need of commercial growth, said Cheryl York, executive director of the Milton-Freewater Area Chamber of Commerce.

She said anticipation had been building for weeks about the opening of the store, which should curb some out-shopping from local residents. It also expands on the goods provided in the community. Safeway had been the only other grocery in the city of just under 7,000 residents.

Avila estimated 90 percent of the army of people stacked from the front counter in a snaking line leading along the perimeter into the butcher area a good 20 feet back in the first 40 minutes Saturday had been regular shoppers at the Super Mex stores in Pasco.

"That's two hours they were driving and instead they can just drive here," she said.

She emphasized Super Mex is not just a destination for one cultural segment of the community. "A lot of our focus is just being here for the community," she said. "We have a little bit of everything. We're not just for Hispanics."

The conversion into the store was intricate, she said. Walls were knocked out from the old video store and refrigerated cases were set up around the perimeter.

Super Mex inside looks like a party. Giant sparkly pinatas with streamers shooting from their cone-shaped arms dangle overhead like enormous disco balls lighting the way through every aisle.

The store is chock full of items. The relatively narrow aisles are stacked five shelves high with canned goods, cereal, pet food, bulk beans, rice, baby food, hominy and more. One whole aisle is packed with nothing but candy, dazzling the eye with rainbow bursts of colorful packaging.

At the entry, 12-packs of $2.99 Pepsi products greeted customers. Down the right-hand side of the store is an array of produce -- from giant papayas at 99 cents a pound to chiles at 69 cents a pound. Following the outside perimeter leads to cold cases with refrigerated meals and packaged meats. Cases along the back wall feature beer. On top of those cases, lively busts of happy frogs, bears and other ornamental statues perch in three rows.

Avila said cases of water, Mexican fruit drinks and fresh fruits and vegetables were among the most popular items of the day. The produce, she said, comes from Mexico via California. As for the reception from the community in general, Avila said it was a little more than expected.

"We knew it was going to be busy," she said. "We didn't know it would be like this."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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