MCALLEN, Texas –Going to the grocery store can be a mundane, ordinary experience. It’s part of our everyday lives, checking off lists with riveting purchases like milk, bread, and eggs.
But when it comes to filling your basket in the border town of McAllen, Ruben’s Grocery has a radical assortment of off the wall items. But it’s not just the fun food selection that brings in curious shoppers, it’s also the over-the-top owner.
We meet Ruben, the man himself, and he is just a colorful as his store.
“I enjoy what I do,” said Ruben. “You ready for a glass of wine?”
Before we get to the vino, we learned a bit more about the store that got started back in 1973, when Ruben’s father, Ruben Sr. who opened this local market in the middle of la Navarro neighborhood.
“At the beginning it was just a neighborhood store,” Ruben said. “Necessities, tortillas weren’t around yet. We sold flour and lard and beans. I remember when tortillas were first sold, people looked around, they were like – you’re selling tortillas? Like flour tortillas? Who’s going to buy these? Because, you know, people made their own. Back then, nobody even thought to buy. It was just, I don’t know, unheard of. Kind of like when we started frozen pizza.”
Ready-made tortillas were just the beginning and it wasn’t long after leaving home to pursue a career in the computer business out in Cali before Ruben’s parents called him home.
“The manager quit, and my mom and dad said, ‘You can’t go to California, you’ve got to stay just for two months and help us out, just help us manage the store until we get a new manager.’ That was 22 years ago,” said Ruben. “I never left.”
Still wanting to see the world, Ruben made a deal with his parents but promised to have the best interests of the store on his mind.
“I said I’ll work for you three weeks out of the month, and the last week of the month I get to travel. I get to go somewhere. And every time I went somewhere, I came back with something. And every time I went somewhere I came back with something else, and I’m a foodie and I love collecting things and I love discovering new stuff and I love sharing it with my friends and the local chefs, share with my customers, and little by little we started getting a reputation of bringing weird or unusual foods,” Ruben said.
Now, you’ll never know what you’ll find at this mint green market in McAllen, from fancy Italian cherries to pottery and more.
“This is where most of our imported products are and we start off with Brazil, lot of Brazilian products here,” Ruben said. “Argentina, they’re very specialty cookies, and then we’ve got Peruvian cookies, Peruvian chocolates, we’ve got more Peruvian chilies, Peruvian grains, more Peruvian chili paste, Columbian candies, Columbian drinks, Columbian figs, and then we’ve got eastern European, Middle Eastern, Spanish, a couple of British products, and then up here, this is yerba mate. Yerba mate is the number one tea in South America, and this is yerba mate, and all of the top shelf is yerba mate. And it’s the largest collection of yerba mate in the world outside of Argentina.”
Yes, Ruben has got just about everything edible under the sun in his store. Jesus Manjarrez, a customer at Ruben’s, can speak as to the variety you’ll get when you enter this store.
“They should come and experience it because there’s a lot of things that you don’t even know that are out there, eatable, and so many unique stuff, not just food, but like any items you can cook in or mix in or any type of stuff,” said Manjarrez.
Does Ruben offer online shopping? Sort of.
“Our inventory changes so often that we don’t have it on books, so when people request the items, what we do is we take a picture of the items, live picture of the aisle, because they’re so seasonal and they’re always changing, and then we just email them the pictures and then they just shop by sight. Yeah, it’s very old-school,” Ruben said.
Of course you’ll still find Ruben’s dad working every day at the store using his old-school pencil and paper to take inventory.
“He’s 78 and so is my mom and they don’t skip a day of work unless they go, unless my mom’s in Vegas because she loves to, or my dad goes fishing or hunting, which is his passion,” said Ruben. “My dad opens the show at 8am every day. The doors don’t open until nine, because, you know, the big act needs an opening act. That’s my dad.”
And now they make their hunt for uncommon eats together, taking escapades to Alaska for their annual snow crab season sale. Yes, you can by snow crabs flown in straight from Alaska in the Valley.
“I do it mostly for my parents, because this is their passion and now it’s become mine,” Ruben said. “I mean, as a child I took it for granted. But now, you know older, being a foodie, to me it’s the most amazing job in the world because I don’t work a single day. The way I look at it is, I open the doors to my house every day and I see what company’s going to come over and take care of the guests that come over, and at the end of the day I let them out and close the doors and open a bottle of wine and go to sleep and wait for the next day and it’s another party. It is my house, and it’s your house, too.”
Ruben isn’t all about bringing the best to the people; it’s about bringing the best out of people with infectious service and a passion for everything food.
“Not only do we have things from all over the world, but you’re going to be pleasantly surprised that you are surrounded by people that really love what they’re doing,” said Ruben. “Every single employee is going to greet you with a smile, they’re going to be really happy when you’re here. It’s like the Disneyland of grocery stores.”
So if your grocery list is as eccentric as your bucket list, stop by Ruben’s for an amazing display of delightful delicacies.
“We have a philosophy as a family. It’s, we want to be good with the family, we want to be good with our employees, we want to be good with our customers, and we want to be good with God. And that’s it,” Ruben said.