As population booms, Hispanic-owned businesses thrive in southern Beaufort County

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As population booms, Hispanic-owned businesses thrive in southern Beaufort County

By GRANT MARTIN
gmartin@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, June 16, 2012   |  1112 Words  |  

Jobita Hernandez has been looking forward to todayfor a long time.

This morning, with a salsa band providing festive and fitting music, the businesswoman will snip a ribbon commemorating her business's most recent expansion, this time to a cavernous space in Bluffton's Sheridan Park.

Seemingly more like an airplane hangar than a store, the 22,000-square-foot El Super International dwarfs neighbors such as Sonic and KFC in a symbolic affirmation of the ascension of local, Hispanic-owned businesses in southern Beaufort County.

Their proliferation is itself emblematic of a Hispanic population that's not just booming, but becoming better assimilated into the business community.

'BETTER EVERY DAY'

Hernandez, who was born in Houston but raised in Mexico, says she can't remember ever wanting to be anything but a businesswoman.

"My mother was in business, and I think that's where I get it from," she says. "For me, business is everything."

She smiles, but it's clear she isn't kidding.

She recently moved the business -- which she owns with her husband, Efrain -- into the new space from a 9,000-square-foot location on nearby Simmonsville Road, and the two have operated another El Super on Pope Avenue on Hilton Head Island for five years.

Most of the new El Super is similar to a conventional grocery store, but it also contains a restaurant and dress shop for weddings and quinceaneras.

"I didn't think we would have this kind of impact here," she says, nodding toward a family walking to the market's restaurant.

Most of its 28 tables are occupied on a weekday afternoon, and another small group of patrons is congregated around a television airing a Spanish broadcast of a soccer tournament.

"It gets really crowded, and we're doing better and better every day," she says, and smiles again.

She estimates the restaurant, which features a buffet of imported meat and produce, draws more than 250 customers daily.

Part of the store's appeal for the local Hispanic community is its sheer abundance and diversity of food from Central and South America.

The store's aisles, Hernandez explains, are arranged by country -- beans from Guatemala in one, pasta from Colombia in another -- and its coolers are well-stocked with imported products such as Honduran cheese and Argentinean chorizo.

The store's butchers also offer a variety of items unavailable at the more conventional grocery chains on U.S. 278, such as cow's feet and pig heads.

"People keep asking us to put new things in stock," she says of the market's diverse offerings. "We tell them, 'Just let us know, we'll bring it for you.' "

'THE LAW OF PROGRESSION'

The market's goods reflect a non-native population that has prospered in recent years.

Twelve years ago, only 76 people of Hispanic or Latino origin lived in Bluffton, less than 6 percent of the town's population, according to the 2000 Census.

According to the 2010 Census, that segment had grown 3,100 percent -- to 2,356 -- representing nearly 19 percent of Bluffton's population, which had itself increased nearly tenfold, to 12,530, since 2000.

Hispanics comprise 12.1 percent of Beaufort County's population, according to the census, more than double the state average of 5.1 percent.

And according to Eric Esquivel, a Hilton Head businessman who helped administer the census, that figure is "horribly low." He said paperwork issues may have kept hundreds of Hispanic respondents from identifying themselves as such on the forms.

Regardless, Esquivel -- a Hispanic whose own enterprise, La Isla magazine, recently expanded its coverage from Beaufort County to Charleston -- says a point has been reached where Hispanics aren't merely in Beaufort County, but have become an increasingly vital component of it.

"It's just the law of progression," he explains, estimating there are 200 Hispanic-owned retail stores in Beaufort County alone.

"This is the story of all immigrants in this country through all times, and we're seeing it now."

OTHER GROWING BUSINESSES

Manuel Martinez, a Mexican-born entrepreneur who moved to Bluffton from the Atlanta area in 2002, recalls when such progress was more difficult for Hispanics.

"At that time, no one trusted you," he says. "People didn't think I could afford monthly rent."

Undeterred, he found a space that year on Hilton Head to sell imported food to the immigrant population. He still operates it -- along with another he opened in Garden City, Ga., in 2005 -- and recently opened a third market in the space vacated by Hernandez on Simmonsville Road.

"Now it's become much easier to get the space you need," he says, "and of course, I have more customers as well."

In 2005, Nelson Hernandez was selling prepaid phone cards to fellow immigrants from his garage.

In 2007, he secured a business license and established a more conventional store in Bluffton, selling not just cards but cellphones, computer services and security systems, along with a telegram service so people could wire money to their families back home.

He opened another store, Sebastian Multiservices, in Hardeeville in 2010, and a third opened its doors on Hilton Head in January.

"We make our customers comfortable," said his cousin and business partner, Rodrigo Guzman. "We speak the same language and think as they do."

'A GREAT OPPORTUNITY'

Shellie West Hodges, executive director of the Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, says she hopes American natives can also feel that comfort in Hispanic-owned businesses.

"I think there's some hesitation there on both sides," she says. "People still have some walls up, but our objective is to show support for everyone."

Hodges says she's looking forward to being alongside Jobita Hernandez at today's ribbon-cutting, calling it "a great opportunity to create some cohesiveness between all the different groups we have in the community."

Hernandez agrees that ethnic groups remain too segregated locally, adding she hopes to attract people of all backgrounds to her store.

She also envisions her business' impact spreading beyond Beaufort County.

"This area's so small," she says, "that you can only grow so much. I never want to stop growing."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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Beaufort chamber forges partnership with Hispanic magazine, March 3, 2012