Marlen and Jose Camacho weren’t certain what they wanted to do when they set out together on the entrepreneurial journey, but they knew they needed to work for themselves. In that way, they’re pretty typical of the growing Latino community in the country, where 25 percent of new businesses are started by Latinos.
For the Camachos it was more about autonomy and a viable business plan than it was about opening a grocery store. They were newlyweds who believed the best way to take care of themselves and their families was to invest in their own futures.
The couple, who opened La Guadalupana Mexican Store in Millsboro in 2011, had considered opening a hair salon or maybe getting into the auto-repair business. In the end, they saw the greatest opportunity was in the grocery business. Marlen was working for a Latin grocery in a different town and saw how it ran and the demand it generated.
Many of the big box groceries have a “Latin” food section, but the selection could be limited. Even though they would operate in about a tenth of the space as a chain, they could offer a more targeted selection, and of course, service in English as well as Spanish.
Marlen also knew the margins weren’t great so they started out lean and stayed that way for the first several years of operation.
Jose said they bought the least expensive cash register at Staples, which still seemed a big investment at the time.
“There were no profits in the beginning, so everything went back into the business. It was hard,” Jose said. “We just decided to work with what we had and be patient and just keep on working.”
Things are easier now. The Camachos have an established, mature business and recently were awarded a small business loan through a small business education program aimed at helping small, Latino-owned businesses succeed.
As quickly as Latinos are starting businesses, a surprising fact is that they tend to be risk-averse when it comes to taking on debt.
“Latinos buy more, spend more and save more,” said Mary Dupont Executive Director of La Plaza, the nonprofit that facilitates the small business education program. “They want to make it and they’re working hard.”
Marlen was the first loan recipient in a program that has graduated more than 70 Latino business owners.
“If they can start a business and get on the path to financial independence, it’s better for the whole community,” Dupont said.
Both the population and the competition has grown since the Camachos first opened their doors. A decade ago, Latinos accounted for about 8 percent of the population in Sussex County. Today it is approaching 10 percent, more than a third of whom live in Georgetown.
Millsboro, however, is a town on the move. The population, which was about just under 4,000 in the 2010 census has more than 7,100 residents today. The number of Latino residents remains at about one percent, according to the census bureau, but the raw numbers have jumped in step with the near-doubling of the population.
“I’ve seen a lot of change and not just in the number of Latino stores,” Jose said. “There are a lot of businesses that need help.”
Jose and Marlen were among the earliest recipients of that help. The La Plaza-sponsored course helped them qualify for a small business loan that they will use to make improvements on the store, which is already getting a little crowded.
Jose said they hope eventually to expand, but for now, just making sure that the place looks nice and everyone has a good experience is their top priority.
“You don’t want anyone to have a bad experience,” Jose said. “Bad news travels faster than good.”
La Plaza will be holding a business summit 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 25 at Del Tech in Georgetown. For more information visit their website, https://laplazadelaware.org/home/