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Small business, big changes
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"I was little when I went to the meat departmnt in my neighborhood back in Mexico," said Mario Abraira. "I told them, 'I can help you, and you don't have to pay me. I just want to see how to do it.'" (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
An old business in a small Minnesota town has a new owner. The Renville Locker butchered meat under the same family ownership for 38 years in southwestern Minnesota. Over that time the population of the region has changed, and more change is on the way. There may be no better symbol of the shift than the new face behind the meat market counter.

Renville, Minn. — Mario Abraira, 34, is a little puzzled about why local reporters are so interested in him. As a boy in Mexico City or in southern California, where he lived until last year, Mexican business owners are hardly unusual. Abraira has dreamed for years of being his own boss doing work he loves.

"(For) many years back in California I had three jobs," he said. "You would hardly see me home because even on weekends I had to work. I was always working but I keep in mind that it's not going to be forever. You have goals in life, you have dreams (you want) to come true, and you have to work hard to make it."

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Image Renville's Mexican market

But people are curious about Abraira because this is rural Minnesota, where the vast majority of Hispanics still come to work as migrant workers or in places like the Jennie-O turkey plant in Willmar. Work on the Jennie-O killing floor helped Abraira pay the bills when he first moved to the area last July.

Abraira moved up to Willmar to join his sister, leaving his wife behind until he got his feet on the ground here. He had sold his house in California, on a housing market more expensive than Minnesota's. He bought a duplex in Willmar and began renting out the other side. With the rest of the money he went seeking his venture.

The pastor of his church told him about Dean Williams. Williams bought the Renville Locker almost 40 years ago. Over the past 20 years, he's watched his customers change, and his business changed as well. In the early 1980s he hired his first Hispanic worker. He put up signs in Spanish. He started dabbling in Mexican groceries and prepared meats, and stocking up for holidays like Cinco de Mayo.

But Williams, whose business motto is "bend as far as you can to keep a customer," had bent about as far as he could.

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Image Williams knew the business might benefit from Hispanic ownership

"These mexican gals are very good cooks," Williams said. "And there was no way that Dean Williams was going to be able to fix fajitas, or a Menudo soup, as well as they can or that tastes as well as they can. I did not have the knowledge to provide for my growing customer (base)."

Williams was looking toward retirement, but wanted to leave his family business in good hands. Abraira began dropping by to learn about the Renville Locker, helping out for free. He brought his experience learning to butcher as a boy in Mexico city, and working long hours in Mexican markets in California.

Williams had been trying to sell the business for two years, and was immediately open to Abraira's interest. Abraira took his proposal to six different banks. As he says it, he was combining his skills, his time, and his money to realize his goal: the basic entrepreneurial path. Not everyone thought it was so basic.

"It's like one banker told me: 'What makes you think that customers want to keep doing business with you when you're Hispanic and the owner now is white?'" Abraira said.

It was not a concern that had given him much pause. As long as he gave customers the service they had come to expect, Abraira was confident he could take over from a white owner and make it work. What's more, his expertise could fully exploit the niche Williams was already exploring. He got his loan - from another bank - and forged ahead. Abraira bargained with Williams to move the closing date up from January to September, so he could get rolling before the busy holiday season.

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Image "Everything is hard, but not impossible."

Abraira needed a distributor for Mexican groceries. To scout out his options, he began calling the phone numbers on the food in his own pantry. His wife moved up from California and took over the task of installing a Western Union franchise as a side business.

And Abraira continued Williams' changes to the meat case. The Renville Locker sells a lot more tripe and pigs' feet than it used to sell, and Abraira stocks much thinner cuts of meat than most meat markets. Hispanic customers prefer thinner cuts because of Mexican tradition and because they are easy for people working long hours to cook in a hurry. Hispanics drive from as far as Montevideo and Sleepy Eye for the meats the Renville Locker now has to offer.

At the same time, there are customers and ranchers who've been coming here for decades. Abraira greets Paul Nelson as he enters the store. Nelson has been coming here for 20 years, and even though he has since moved out of town he doesn't plan to change the habit.

"I live in Montevideo now, but I still come back to go to the dentist and fill up on hamburger like I normally do," Nelson said.

Abraira will continue stocking the hamburger and 3/4-inch steaks the traditional customers have come to expect. The former owner, Williams, knows the adjustment may not be an instant one for some of his long-time customers.

"People, I think, right now are a little hesitant. I see a little bit of it. But that's going to wear off. Everybody's just gotta work together, accept one another," he said.

Abraira's food may already be changing this community, all on its own. Mexicans at the nearby sugar beet co-op sometimes share their lunches with non-Mexican coworkers. It turns out items like tamales have a certain universal appeal. These new converts to Mexican cooking have been looking for the right ingredients for their own lunchbox tamales. Mario Abraira has been more than happy to help them out.

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