Festive lift-off for Mi Pueblo

Mi Pueblo on First Street.

Mi Pueblo toned down its exterior paint job to cool a
controversy over acceptable colors, but inside the store this
weekend the grand-opening atmosphere couldn’t have been
Mi Pueblo toned down its exterior paint job to cool a controversy over acceptable colors, but inside the store this weekend the grand-opening atmosphere couldn’t have been brighter.

A fully stocked Mi Pueblo was packed with customers Friday. The colors absent on the outside are present inside: green, red, yellow, pink and baby blue. Walls are covered in miniature replicas of bright Mexican homes and colloquial buildings, and a buzz of Spanish traveled through the store.

Customers lined up at the deli counters to buy marinated beef jerky, pig legs, whole octopi, Oaxaca cheese, tamales and salsas. The store is lined with fresh produce, meats, fish, Mexican bread and dairy products; while a fast food counter sells tacos, flautas, chicken and beef drowned in green salsa and agua de Jamaica – a popular milky drink sprinkled with cinnamon.

“I always went to Mi Pueblo in San Jose,” said San Martin resident Irma Ramos perusing the dairy section of the store with her mother. “When it was warm, I went there every weekend so we could have a barbecue in the garden with the family. We’re happy because it’s very difficult to park in San Jose.”

But it was not very easy to park here either.

Cars circled the lot of the Town Plaza shopping center trying to find a spot in a parking lot filled to the brim. Mi Pueblo blasted Ranchera music throughout the mall.

Mayor Al Pinheiro, Councilman Dion Bracco and planning commissioners Ben Anderson, Kai Lai, Brad Bannister, among others, were shown around the store Friday morning. The official ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Saturday.

Lai, who asked Mi Pueblo to gather input from neighbors at the Oct. 7 Planning Commission meeting, said Friday that he liked the variety in the store after purchasing a bag of Lady’s Fingers – small bananas – chicken cut butterfly-style and Manila mangoes.

“I used to have to drive to San Jose,” he said.

Lai said he did not agree with Pinheiro’s assessment of the Planning Commission’s deliberation process. He said a vague City Code, which asks that new developments to be “harmonious” with surrounding buildings, was to blame for past contention on Mi Pueblo.

“There are different interpretations of the word ‘harmonious,’ ” he said.

After a controversial process, Mi Pueblo has opened its doors, and many of the tensions that developed among city officials due to its bright facade have subsided.

“We are good friends and we argue,” Lai said of Pinheiro, who owns an insurance company on First Street. “He’s my travel and insurance agent and I wouldn’t change that. This is how this town is. ”

The Hispanic foods store’s bright colors sparked a fiery discussion among nearby store tenants, residents, planning commissioners and council members last month. Even Pinheiro took a stand on the color scheme.

When the Planning Commission took on Mi Pueblo at a meeting Oct. 7, it allowed the store to keep its corporate colors, but required Mi Pueblo to reach out to some of their disgruntled neighbors and come up with an acceptable color scheme. Pinheiro later attempted – unsuccessfully – to appeal the Planning Commission’s decision, saying their deliberation should have been more centered on the City Code.

The cranberry-colored towers that caused much contention are still there, but the light blue paint that lined the window frames is gone. A three-feet block of sienna brown hue was added to the foot of the building.

According to Perla Rodriguez, the public relations representative for the San Jose-based grocery chain, the architect sketched a new rendering with tempered colors and 90 percent of the mall’s tenants signed their approval, she said.

“We went door to door and heard their feedback,” said Rodriguez. “People felt we heard them and everyone wants more business. The parking lot is full.”

City Planner Melissa Durkin could not confirm the existence of the list or if tenants signed on, as she was out of the office this week, but Janice An – co-owner of Stubby’s Sports Bar and Grill and Mi Pueblo’s next door neighbor – said she was shown the rendering and signed off on the new scheme.

“The colors are fine: They got rid of the blue.” she said. “We’ve been waiting since February for the store to open, but the parking lot is terrible. Customers can’t find parking.”

Aaron Chang, owner of Chinese food restaurant Fast Dragon saw more customers enter his store since the store was opened unofficially at the end of October.

“We love it,” he said . “I have no objection to their color. It’s their cultural color, and it’s increasing traffic (into my store).”

The Gilroy franchise is the 18th store Mi Pueblo has opened throughout Northern California. Rodriguez said the business has hired 150 people from the area out of 3,000 applicants, and invested $2.8 million in the Gilroy store.

Cashier Krystal Villanueva, 22, said she had been looking for a full-time job for more than a year before she interviewed at Mi Pueblo.

“I didn’t think I had a chance here. I heard there were many applicants.”

Juvenal Chavez, son of Mi Pueblo’s founder, likened meeting the residents of a new city to getting to know the family of a new spouse.

“You can’t do anything about it,” he said. “You have to find a way to work together.”

Chavez said residents are happy now the store has opened and Spanish-speaking residents, who represent about half of the population of Gilroy, are well catered to.

“Not only do people speak the language, but they feel nostalgia. I spoke to the cashiers and they said half the (customers) speak English.”

Ramos said she shopped at Safeway before Mi Pueblo opened here. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Ramos said Mexican recipes help her keep Mexican customs alive in her home. Still, she rarely shopped at Arteaga’s Super Save Market, a Hispanic foods store on the 200 block of First Street, which is owned by a relative of Chavez, Mi Pueblo’s founder.

Mi Pueblo is Arteaga’s direct competitor, and Chavez said the topic comes up in family reunions.

“We chuckle about it and brush it off,” he said.

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