Super Milton Market along Highway 11 in Milton-Freewater may be a mom-and-pop shop, but this mamá y papá — operated by Imelda and Juan Figueroa — packs a different flavor than your traditional American corner store.
Bright colors spin and float in the rafters as 200 piñatas dangle over produce bins flowing with the familiar and the exotic.
There’s sugar cane, spiny chayote and cactus leaves, ribbons of avocados and tomatoes, near-football size papayas and fat mangoes, all marked with fluorescent price tags. Ripe oranges for 59 cents a pound? Practically unheard of in a small town this far north. And these are real oranges, just like they’re supposed to be, says one surprised California transplant. The store has 55 varieties of fresh produce.
All manner of comestibles and hard goods, from Mexican breads and mainstream bakery desserts, to Hispanic grills and store-made pork rinds — chicharrons — are head turners.
The market was recently awarded 2019 Business of the Year by the Milton-Freewater Chamber of Commerce. Authentically Hispanic is the operative word for this evolving grocery, bakery, juice bar and deli, totally owned and operated by the Figueroas.
Since Imelda, 31, and Juan, 34, took hold of the keys to the store, they’ve added extra produce space and 24 feet of display area. The two, who are also parents to three young children, recently answered questions for Lifestyles in between ringing up customers.
LS: How do you price produce so inexpensively given it’s 1,350 miles to the Mexican border? And where do you get your other unusual inventory such as the cookware? Are the items difficult to find?
Imelda: Every week, our own semi-truck and driver travel down to Nogales, Ariz., and Los Angeles, bringing back seasonal produce, and other items hard to find such as Imusa cooking gadgets from distributors. We just know people. Still, because we have this fresh produce coming in, we have to throw out the old, but we donate to the Milton-Freewater food bank, too.
LS: How old is the store? And why did you two buy it?
Imelda: A. The store used to be a video-rental store, then a grocery store, so now it’s about 20 years old. The opportunity came up six years ago from the owner in the Tri-Cities. We took over on Oct. 31, 2014 and moved to Milton — despite having just built a new home on six acres in Othello, plus co-owning two other homes there. Our business now is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, with nine employees here and more in the tortilla factory — plus my mom, who makes huge tamales! And our kids — when they’re not in school or studying at St. Francis of Assisi Parish — they’re here, doing what we’re doing.
LS: What’s your background?
Juan: I was born in Pilcaya, Guerrero, in Mexico. I started with nothing. I worked as a cook for my uncle in Othello for 14 years.
Imelda: I’m from California but was a junior at Othello’s high school when I applied for a job at that restaurant. At first, I didn’t like Juan, though he really liked me from the moment he saw me. It was less than a year later — I was just 16—when we got married. I still graduated with honors, college credits and a 4.0. We’ve been married 14 years and have three children from ages 3 to 13 with a baby due in three months.
Juan: It’s always been my dream to have a store.
Imelda: We bought a nearby tortilla bakery, La Calandria, and just built a brand new, high-capacity laundromat right behind the store. I keep it clean and even varnished the long wooden bar before we opened this past October.
LS: What hours are you working? What do you do at the store?
Imelda: I get up at 6 a.m. to work out, then take the kids to school, then at 8 a.m. start delivering fresh tortillas and chips from La Calandria to restaurants and stores. It’s important to rotate stock. Back at the store around 11 a.m., I do a lot of talking! And after school, whatever we’re doing, the kids are doing. I work until 7 p.m. Though we have an excellent baker from Mexico, he is here without his family. He goes home for three months a year. He takes pride in his work. He’s working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Juan fills in for the baker.
Imelda: The hardest part of owning the store was managing our time the first couple years. But now we’re clearer. We were able to help feed volunteers during the flooding though the store was OK. Now besides church activities, I’m a member of the Cinco de Mayo committee and for the past four years we’ve been out there at the Milton-Freewater festival selling shaved ice, mangoneadas, tostilocos, fruit cups, aguas frescas and tacos. This year we will be at the Spring Fling in Walla Walla for the first time. We’ll figure something out because we’ll be at two places on the same day.
Juan: And we just opened a produce stand on Fridays and Saturdays in Walla Walla at Ninth and Rose from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s doing great even without promotions.
Imelda: We have to be our own employees. Everything you see here, we can do here.