La Tropicana is a corner market in the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park. Outside it has signs for lotto tickets and money transfers. Inside, shelves of groceries crowd skinny aisles.
A typical line of customers at the register on a weekday afternoon might start with a Latina mom, kids in tow, buying a $1.49 bag of dried chilies — ingredients for dinner. The transaction is done completely in Spanish. And that will be followed by a white 20-something with minimalist tattoos buying a jug of cold-brew coffee and a gourmet deli sandwich for $18.70. The transaction is done completely in English.
The things people buy and the language they buy it in tell the story of a neighborhood in transition. Spanish, then English. Basics, then indulgences. Cheap cat food (Whiskas, $6.99 a bag). Then gluten-free cat food.
“Gluten-free. For your pet! Can you believe that? This is $16!” said Rana Redfield, picking up a bag.
She owns La Tropicana, does all the ordering, but even she finds some of the items her newer customers are requesting hard to believe.
But the extreme mix of inventory is a “true reflection of what the neighborhood is right now,” she said. “Everything that’s in here is in here because people come in to buy it.”
Customers line up at La Tropicana. Redfield says about five years ago, regular customers started asking for boxes for moving; newer customers were asking for gluten-free bread and organic milk and eggs.
Twelve years ago, when Redfield first took over management of La Tropicana, this neighborhood looked very different.
“We were serving predominantly Latino families,” she said. “A lot of my customers were living paycheck to paycheck, depending on food stamps. We were very limited with what we could offer, and we had to be very conscious of the pricing.”
The store carried basics — toilet paper, cooking oil, laundry detergent — in whatever brand was the cheapest. And it carried low-priced meat and produce that catered to her customers’ tastes at the time.
Redfield was born in Syria, but grew up in an immigrant neighborhood in Los Angeles County with lots of Mexican families, and so she sold things she learned about from them: higado (liver), chicharron (fried pig skin), chayote (a tropical fruit). One of her employees taught her how to prepare nopales (a kind of cactus used in salads and juices).
“I even learned how to clean the spikes off and cut them up in a certain way,” she said.
But about five years ago, customers started asking Redfield two questions she was not prepared for. Some of her regular customers came in to ask for boxes, because, they told her, they were moving out of the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, some new faces started showing up in the store.
“Instead of asking for a product that would be used to prepare a Mexican cuisine, people were asking for something completely different,” Redfield said. “Organic milk, organic eggs, gluten-free bread.”
When you hear about old mom and pop stores closing down in gentrifying neighborhoods, it often comes down to how the owners respond in this moment. So how did La Tropicana survive where so many others have gone down? Careful customer research, a long-term lease, and some unbelievably good luck that came in the form of a phone-call at 4 a.m.
The full story is in our new podcast, York & Fig.
La Tropicana caters to two kinds of customers, selling an assortment of organic and basic goods.
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