On the first day Ramon Villasenor opened Los Portales Supermarket in Wilmington, he overlooked two important details. First, he somehow forgot to order tortillas. Second, he forgot to go to the bank and get cash for the register.
What’s particularly amusing about this, as he tells the story 15 years later, is that as a child back in Mexico, he began making trips to the bank for change for his father’s taco truck at just 6 years old.
“Peeling the onions and going to get the change from the bank was my first job,” Villasenor said.
Villasenor and his three siblings, his brothers Fernando and Miguel and his sister Maribel, are partners in Los Portales Supermarket and Taqueria, as well as a new restaurant, Tequila Comida and Cantina, expected to open in Monkey Junction this spring. Over the past 15 years, the family has grown a small market, with only a couple hundred products, into a multi-million dollar business.
The Villasenor brothers came to Wilmington from their small village near the Pacific coast of Mexico in the late ’90s. Fernando, the oldest brother and first to arrive, was a part owner with El Cerro Grande in those days. Miguel and Ramon followed him to the Port City, and Ramon, just 15 at the time, enrolled in New Hanover High School, and worked for Fernando at El Cerro after school. Miguel, then 21, began working at the restaurant as a dishwasher, and within six months as his English improved he began waiting tables.
Following his high school graduation and a few months of college, Ramon was lured from his studies by the prospect of a steady paycheck. By 2003 he was developing plans for the market and trying to convince his older brothers to join him in opening their own business.
The business was successful almost immediately, and following the first year, Miguel came on board to expand the market by adding a butcher shop.
“This is something I had experience with from working with my father in Mexico,” Miguel Villasenor said.
Bringing in whole animals allowed the brothers to offer cuts of meat, offal and organs commonly used in traditional Mexican and Latin American dishes.
Once the butcher shop was up and running, the brothers expanded further, adding a bakery, a deli counter that offers a $6 carry-out hot lunch and a tortilleria providing freshmade corn and flour tortillas.
By 2006 the popularity of the carry-out lunches at the market got Miguel and Fernando thinking about opening a restaurant. When a space not far from the market became available, they knew the time was right. Ramon would run Los Portales Taqueria, and Miguel would run the market.
“Like all brothers, we don’t agree on everything,” Ramon Villasenor said. “But we have such a strong relationship that we always work things out. Miguel pushes really hard for us to always be better, and sometimes I just need a little time to see where he’s coming from.”
The brothers say that when they first opened both the market and the taqueria, all of their customers were Hispanic, and it remained largely that way for the first several years. It wasn’t until around 2011, they say, that a more diverse mix began coming through the doors.
“At first they would order only chicken or beef,” Miguel Villasenor said about the new customers. “But now they are becoming more adventurous in trying some things like tongue and intestines.”
He estimates that today, their customers are 70 percent Hispanic and 30 percent non-Hispanic.
As their customer base began to expand, the brothers started thinking about the possibility of opening another restaurant. In 2013 Ramon enrolled in the culinary program at Cape Fear Community College, looking to further his skills and learn new techniques to refine his cooking.
“We knew that if we opened a second restaurant, we wanted it to be something different,” he said.
In Mexico, and throughout the U.S., Mexican food is taking a new shape. The traditional flavors are there but are being presented in new combinations.
“It’s really tasty food with beautiful presentation,” Miguel Villasenor said.
These are the types of dishes that are planned for Tequila Comida and Cantina when it opens. They will incorporate authentic Mexican ingredients and bring together flavors from various regions.
The brothers describe Tequila Comida and Cantina’s food as contemporary Mexican, with an emphasis on quality versus quantity.
“Some of the Mexican dishes Americans have become accustomed to are very heavy and served in very large portions,” Miguel Villasenor said. “But we know that people are interested in great flavors prepared in a more healthful way.”
That will mean fresh-made tortillas and preparation methods such as grilling and steaming rather than frying.
“But of course we have to have the chips,” Ramon Villasenor added. “We are not here to compete with others in town. We just want to pursue what we are passionate about and give people more options.”
Back in 2003 Los Portales Supermarket carried only a couple hundred products from Mexico. Today the brothers estimate that number to be close to 10,000 products from not only Mexico, but also Central and South American countries and Puerto Rico.
“I think the key to being successful,” Miguel Villasenor said, “is to never stop thinking ahead and setting up new goals. Once you reach a goal, why not anther one? Sharing thoughts about what’s next really helps keep us together and keeps us focused on how we can be better.”