Satisfying Mexpats’ taste for home

Dan Grech Oct 13, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: You can find bodegas in most cities across the country. Small, usually family-run shops that cater to Hispanic tastes. Often, customers pay a premium to get the same brand of black beans or hot sauce from back home. About a half million Americans now call Mexico home. And they have their own hankerings, too. Think about what you might pay to get a certain kind of peanut butter. Or your favorite maple syrup. And then mark it up. Substantially. From the Marketplace Americas Desk at WLRN, Marketplace’s Dan Grech goes shopping, expat style.

DAN GRECH: San Miguel de Allende is a quaint hillside town in Central Mexico. And it’s filled to the gills with Mexpats, American expatriates in Mexico. One in 10 people here is from the States.

Traffic along Ancha de San Antonio Street is bustling, as usual. This is Mexpat Central. Half a dozen stores cater to their tastes.

One of those stores, Carey’s International Specialties, looks like a giant kitchen cabinet. Its wire shelves are stacked deep with the stuff a homesick American craves: Triscuits and Bisquick and real maple syrup. I caught up with store owner Raquel Carey.

GRECH: I’m curious what ultimately led you to try to start this place.

CAREY: Well, about 20 years ago, my husband and I, we relocate from the United States to Mexico. And I couldn’t find items that I wanted to use for my own cooking. Especially, I never could find horseradish or cheddar cheese.”

In walks Carey’s number one customer. She’s in a hurry because she’s illegally parked outside. The two race around the store, grabbing things off the shelf: Yuban coffee. Cheeze-its. Hidden Valley blue cheese dressing. . . . Stouffer’s Cheese Enchiladas?

She’s willing to spend her pesos like Monopoly money. . . . Let’s do the numbers: The final tab is 1,231 pesos — That’s 112 bucks, 40 percent more than she’d spend back home.

Mexpats pay premium prices at gringo bodegas. The items are specially shipped from the States. Raquel Carey drives four hours to a warehouse across the border to handpick her new items. The stuff she brings back has the locals scratching her heads. Like low-sodium salt, and dishwasher detergent.

Locals figure, if you can afford a dishwasher, why not hire a maid? Every Mexpat has his or her own private reason for the indulgence. Some miss home. Others need that special ingredient. And many are shopping for picky eaters.

Shopper Ann Holtby is under pressure. She stares down a tough choice on aisle three.

ANN HOLTBY:“One of my sons is very particular, and I was trying to decide if I should spend 35 pesos to buy Log Cabin. I usually use pure maple syrup at home, or let him try the honey with maple flavor. But I decided that he was gonna have to like it or lump in, and I didn’t get the Log Cabin syrup.”

SAM KRAUS:“I, on the other hand, would have bought pure maple syrup for $12 and used it once — if they had it.”

That’s Holtby’s friend Sam Kraus. She could get stuff cheaper at Wal-Mart and Costco, which are ubiquitous down here. But she wants a broader selection.

Stroll one evening through the central plaza, known as El Jardin, and the gringos are impossible to miss. They’re the ones wearing shorts.

The Mexpat influence is everywhere: jazz concerts, yoga classes, art galleries. El Jardin has three hamburger stands. Bacon at no extra cost.

In San Miguel de Allende, I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace.

The shelves of Carey’s International Specialties.

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