By JOHN T. WARD
Leading a visitor through the aisles of his new supermarket on Red Bank’s West Side, Juan Torres wended his way past employees busily stocking shelves and freezers just hours before he unceremoniously opened the store to shoppers Tuesday.
Reminiscent of midsized neighborhood markets long ago displaced by supermarkets, Juanito’s International Marqueta features four short aisles and two longer aisles stocked with dry goods, many of them grouped together by nation of origin: Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and elsewhere, Torres said.
Likewise, along a wall of freezers, food is also grouped by nation of origin, including Salvadoran corn tamales known as pupusas.
The groupings, Torres said, were done to make shopping easier for Latino immigrants as well as non-Hispanic shoppers looking for beans, sardines and other products they used in their home countries, he said.
“People here take taxis to Long Branch to get ingredients,” he said. “Now, they can walk here.”
But why a megabodega along a stretch of Shrewsbury Avenue that boasts a handful of smaller ones?
“Because I think Red Bank needs this,” a publicity-shy Torres told redbankgreen on a tour Tuesday, when he soft-opened the store to customers. It’s the first grocery at which the local Latino market “can get everything they need” in terms of food, he said.
Besides, he said, “if I didn’t do this, somebody else would.”
The market is the latest in a string of businesses launched by Torres, who grew up in Mexico City one of 13 children in a family that owned food stores and restaurants, he said.
Now 51 years old, he came to the United States in 1982, landing a job as a cook and sous chef at a Lakewood country club. He later spent six years as the chef at Navesink Country Club in Middletown.
Starting with Juanito’s Grocery, a bodega he opened on Bridge Avenue opposite the train station around 1991, Torres went on to create a small empire that includes the successful Juanito’s restaurant on Monmouth Street in 1994; a bakery cafe, also on Monmouth Street; and what is now El Guero, a bodega he acquired in 2005 that’s just a block away from his new store.
His original bodega was relocated to Monmouth Street opposite the restaurant, and then sold about a year ago; it’s now Linares Grocery. El Guero, which has large ovens, will be refashioned into more of a bakery, Torres said.
The new 4,000-square-foot marqueta is about four times the size of even the larger West Side bodegas, and features a long fresh-produce display; a gleaming meat-and-fish counter; and a grill-and-steam tray corner at the front for grab-and-go prepared foods.
The store’s four-register checkout island, topped with red clay roof tiles, is styled after a gazebo structure commonly found in a town square, or “placeta,” throughout Mexico, Torres said. The design was meant to create a more casual vibe than one finds in supermarkets Torres said, and gave him a place to stock personal care products.
Its countertop is made of granite for durability, he said.
The marqueta, Torres said, is his shot at “putting it all together.” But it’s also all about food and household products. You won’t find beach chairs here.
“By the experience I have, I know what people need,” he said. “That’s what I sell.”
Juanito’s plans an open-air grand opening event Sunday, when Catherine Street between Shrewsbury Avenue will be closed to traffic from 12 to 5 p.m. Free food and giveaways from the store’s vendors will be available. Torres says he plans to man one of the grills.