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Grocers offer Pasco taste of authenticity

Jesus Gonzalez opens the fridge door and yanks out a large plastic bag. He rips a hole in the bag with his finger. "Smell that," he says, proudly holding up a 20-pound raw pork leg. "We do all our own seasoning."

Since Christmas, Gonzalez has prepared 40 such pork legs for his customers, not to mention the countless beef patties and black pudding sausages.

"Business has been good, " Gonzalez says. "We're getting ready to expand, maybe add on to the building."

He and his partner, John Montalvo, own La Primera Spanish & American Grocery, 6221 Ridge Road, which sells a variety of Latin American and Caribbean foods and beverages and is the only Hispanic grocery store in west Pasco.

Gonzalez, 37, is a former office manager for the Board of Education in New York City.

He took early retirement and moved to Spring Hill a few years ago. Like Montalvo he is a native of Puerto Rico.

Montalvo, 40, is a former insurance adjuster who grew up in Bronx, N.Y., where he occasionally helped his sister run a similar Spanish grocery store. He moved to Spring Hill a few years ago because he "got tired of the big city."

He said he never intended to open a grocery store. The idea came after he struck up a conversation with his neighbor, the former owner of La Primera, which opened in 1987. "He wanted to get out of the business," Montalvo said. "I wanted to do something for the Latin American and Caribbean community. There's no other Spanish American grocery store around. You have to drive down to Hillsborough County."

Montalvo, who estimates there are more than 10,000 Hispanic residents in Pasco County, knew something about the business. His uncle runs a similar grocery store in Spring Hill. His friend, Gonzalez, then doing minimum wage work for the Supervisor of Elections Office in Hernando County, liked the idea.

"John and I sat down together and I said, "Well, this is an opportunity for us,' " Gonzalez said.

So, using money from Gonzalez's early retirement, credit cards and a bank loan, the two scraped up enough money to buy the business from the Nieves family in December 1996. They declined to say how much they paid.

The men had their work cut out for them. The store was in bad shape: shelves were half-empty, and many customers had stopped coming in, Gonzalez said.

So the new owners stocked more canned foods and spices, started selling fresh vegetables such as yucca and plantains and added a variety of Central American beers and sodas.

The 1,800-square-foot store, lined with pictures, flags and license plates from Puerto Rico, Mexico and other countries, sells everything from Manioc flour, which is popular in Brazil, to Jamaican jerk seasoning and Peruvian yellow hot sauce known as Amazonos. La Primera sells Cuban sandwiches on weekdays and Puerto Rican dishes on Saturdays.

The new owners also started a Western Union service, which allows customers to wire money to relatives in other countries. And they marketed the grocery store on Spanish radio and cable television. Located in a small strip center next to a tattoo business and bait shop, La Primera is easy to miss.

The improvements paid off: since acquiring the business, La Primera's annual sales have increased 45 percent to about $200,000, Gonzalez says.

On New Year's Eve, La Primera was so busy Gonzalez and Montalvo had little time to talk. Puerto Rican, Mexican and Jamaican customers streamed in and out of the store, picking up bags of pork, eating beef patties and carting out armfuls of plantains for New Year's dishes. Gonzalez and Montalvo greeted them like family members, calling them by their first names, cracking jokes and wishing them a happy new year. Spanish music from Radio Telemundo played in the background, lending the a festive, kinetic energy to the bodega.

Sonia Quinones, a social worker with Hospice of Pasco, is a regular at the store. She came to pick up an order of pastelles, a side dish of grated vegetables mixed with pork traditionally served in Puerto Rico during Christmas and New Year. Quinones is moving from Tampa to Trinity in southwest Pasco.

"They have everything the Latin culture needs in order to celebrate this season," she said.

_ Richard Verrier covers business in Pasco County. He can be reached at (727) 869-6245 or by e-mail at verriersptimes.com.

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