Ask any Mexican-restaurant owner in Wisconsin where they get their products, and they’ll probably say they use tortillas, chilies, or cheeses from Milwaukee-based El Rey Mexican Products Inc., now one of the biggest Hispanic-owned corporations in the state. In fact, the company—with an annual revenue of $74.9 million in 2010—owns and operates four neighborhood grocery stores, manufactures and sells its own tortillas, and even, at one time, shipped its products overseas to Europe. But like many family-owned and operated businesses, El Rey started out small, as a simple conversation between two brothers.
“My father-in-law, Octavio, had a small grocery store [in Milwaukee], but for people to have corn tortillas, they would have to drive to Chicago to get them,” explains Olivia Villarreal, business partner and wife of Ernesto, president of the company. “In the 1970s, it was hard, not everybody knew how to get there. Also, there were the chilies that we were used to, fresh cheeses, and the Mexican bakery. That is when [Ernesto and my brother-in-law, Heriberto] decided we needed a store that also had a tortilla plant here in Wisconsin.”
Originally, both families flocked from Mexico to the Midwest in pursuit of new opportunities. “It was the Industrial Belt in the 1940s and 1950s,” Villarreal explains. “My dad settled in Waukesha, Wisconsin, worked at Grede Foundries for over 30 years, and moved us here in 1957. Ernesto and Heriberto’s dad followed to Milwaukee in 1964. Both dads knew that working in agriculture was not a good way to raise a family, that their children had a better chance in the Midwest.”
In 1978, when Ernesto and Heriberto decided they wanted to establish a local grocery store and tortilla plant, Super Mercado el Rey was born. While many of the Mexican cheeses—chihuahua, queso fresco, and cotija—could be made in Wisconsin, and the corn for their tortillas was grown in the Midwest, they knew they needed to import much of their produce and sauces.
As the demographic shifted and the Hispanic population in the Milwaukee region grew, so did the appeal of Mexican and Latin food. “In the early 1980s, Mexican food became very popular,” Villarreal says. “This trend set up the Villarreal’s other branch of their business, wholesaling Hispanic-food products [to restaurants].”
In the early 90s, as the business grew, El Rey studied the possibility of exporting their corn and flour tortillas and other Mexican products to Germany. In 1994, the first shipments of their items were sent and a wave of Mexican cuisine was started in Germany. “For months before the first shipment of corn tortilla chips and nacho cheese, they had billboards placed throughout Germany stating, ‘EL REY NACHOS ARE COMING,’” Villarreal explains. “This really piqued people’s curiosity, and soon many companies began bringing Mexican food to Europe.”
Today, El Rey employs about 325 people between its four grocery stores, their wholesale operation, and the tortilla plant. But even with its success, Villarreal is quick to point out that growing the business was never easy. “The most challenging part of starting our business was the financing,” she explains. “We were lucky that my sister-in-law Criselda and I worked at our bank. The bank was a bit leery to finance our first real estate, which was to house our first store, but they took a chance on our character.”
While there have been many challenges to owning and operating a company, Villarreal says she loves sharing the business with her and Ernesto’s four children and nine grandchildren, along with Heriberto and Criselda’s children and grandchildren. “Our favorite part of the business is that we can share our success with our children and their spouses, and we can share ideas easily, no matter where we are,” she explains.
El Rey also gives back to the community by hosting golf outings to raise money for scholarships for Hispanic youth and giving tours of the store to students every spring. They also provide food, which people can make themselves and sell to church groups and festivals each year. “We believe that instead of handing over a check, that they need to own the raising of the funds so we enable them to raise their own funds,” Villarreal says.
With all their donations, it’s important to the Villarreal family that El Rey is not only providing great Mexican-food products to the people of Wisconsin, but also helping to integrate the Hispanic and Anglo communities there. “All of our children were born in America,” Villarreal says. “They are Americans first, but we teach them not to forget their parents’ roots. It is important for the Hispanic community to be open to the American way, and for the Anglo community to understand that we are all the same. We are hoping that our food and stores, along with our children and their spouses, are closing those gaps.”