By: Anna Junko, Senior Editor for Literature and Art (firstname.lastname@example.org)
HUMBOLDT PARK, CHICAGO – Domingo Claudio Jr. stands behind the register at Puerto Rico Food & Liquors, ringing up a six-pack of beer and a loaf of bread for a grey-haired Puerto Rican man. Latin music blares, and Junior taps a Bomba rhythm with the tips of his fingers. The transaction, completed entirely in Spanish, is perforated by laughs and profanities.
“Ok, see you later, bro, have a good one,” says Junior, slamming the register shut and handing the man his change. He raps the counter with his fist.
“Later, Junior.” The man laughs and stuffs the bills in his pocket, jingling bells as he opens the door.
Junior’s shop is busy, as always. A steady stream of customers wanders in, buying cigarettes, liquor, milk, and eggs. Junior recognizes most of his customers, and if he doesn’t, they can’t tell the difference. He makes everyone laugh. Winning lottery tickets are plastered around the counter, annotated with Junior’s small, orderly print. It’s easy to see why his family’s store has been a neighborhood icon for over 30 years, and why it’s one of the few businesses that has successfully withstood changes in the economy and the neighborhood.
“I can’t remember all the businesses that have come and gone,” Junior says. “Sometimes I think about how, man, businesses come and go, but we’ve been here 30 years. Our little corner store in our little Humboldt Park.” He crosses himself and looks to the sky. “Over 30 years running.”
Humboldt Park, located on Chicago’s Northwest side, has been home to many ethnicities since its beginnings in the late 1800s. As downtown Chicago developed, the city’s Danish and Norwegian communities first made Humboldt Park home. The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw waves of German and Scandinavian immigrants who built hospitals and schools. During the 1920s and 1930s, Italian Americans and German and Russian Jews began to move in, including notable authors Saul Bellow and L. Frank Baum. The next entrants were Puerto Ricans and Polish Americans, and today Humboldt Park is the center of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. Humboldt Park is an interesting cultural conglomeration of its past; Augusta Boulevard is also Honorary Saul Bellow Way, the Norwegian American Hospital graces California Avenue, and two gigantic metal Puerto Rican flag sculptures straddle Division Street. There’s a statue of the German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, in the center of the grassy park that gives the neighborhood its name.
Now the yuppies are moving in, and Junior has noticed a change in business.
“I say it’s about 60 percent white now. Where before maybe I used to sell 20 pound bags of rice, now I don’t sell them because white people don’t eat 20 pound bags of rice. When you’re talking about Latinos, you’re talking about families. Now a lot of the people who are living in the neighborhood are young kids, ‘urban professionals,’ yuppies,” Junior says. “They don’t need that stuff.”
Junior was born and raised in Humboldt Park, the oldest child of Puerto Rican immigrants, Domingo and Carmen Claudio. Domingo and Carmen opened the store in the 1980s, catering to predominantly Polish and Puerto Rican customers. Back then, it was hard to find Latino foods at mainstream grocery stores, and his family sold produce such as Malanga, Yuca, and Chayote—different types of Puerto Rican vegetables—to customers. He can’t sell those items anymore.
“Now, as I start getting my new clientele, I gotta think, ‘oh, what am I going to put in this fridge? It’s gonna look empty.’ So now I got kale, Brussels sprouts. Puerto Ricans don’t know what that stuff is.”
Junior adapts his inventory accordingly. He doesn’t get too hung up on cultural differences, and understands that flexibility is the key to his store’s survival. Just like Humboldt Park, Junior takes changes in demographics in stride.
“There were so many Polish people in the neighborhood when I was growing up that I learned to count in Polish.” Junior pauses to demonstrate, reciting the price of a bag of coffee in the Eastern European tones so different from Spanish. “Now,” he continues, “I have Ukrainian customers, and when I speak Polish to them, they say, ‘I’m not Polish, I’m Ukrainian,’ and I say, ‘well you understand it, don’t you? That’s all that matters.’ It’s like when people come up to me and they say, ‘¿Que Onda?’ and I say, ‘Oh, I’m doing good, and yourself? You know, I’m Puerto Rican, I’m not Mexican. It’s cool, I’m just letting you know.’ I don’t understand why people get so upset about it. It’s cool.”
This relaxed attitude is what makes Junior so successful. Junior is comfortable around everybody. Over the course of a weekday evening, he sold lottery tickets in Spanish, discussed the nuances of craft beer with a ‘yuppie’, and teased an awkward, pimply teenager for buying the entire stock of Little Debbie cinnamon rolls. Junior never went to business school, never took any formal seminars on marketing, and never had somebody telling him how to run his business. He just works hard, laughs a lot, and pays attention to the lessons his father taught him.
“When I was growing up, my father would always joke around with the customers. He would always have music in the store, too. That’s one thing that I believe I got from my dad is having music in the store. You go into a lot of stores now a days… it’s quiet, all you hear are the motors running. You always hear music when you come in here.”
In fact, the music Junior plays is something customers always notice first. On any given day or night you might hear classic Chicago House Music, traditional Puerto Rican classics, or contemporary hip hop. This can be attributed to the fact that not only does Junior singlehandedly operate Puerto Rico Foods, but he moonlights as a DJ, too.
“I’ve been DJing since 1987. I used to DJ in clubs, back in the days. I don’t do that anymore, but once in a while I get asked to DJ weddings and stuff.”
It’s rare to walk into Puerto Rico Foods and find it empty, and you can be sure that it’s never quiet. There are always a few people hanging around, talking in English, Spanish, or Polish. In a way it’s similar to Chicago’s iconic dive bars. You can count on a friendly person to listen to your troubles, there’s good food and drink, and you always bump into a friend.
“There are usually a couple of dudes hanging out watching boxing,” notes one customer. “Plus if you want Junior to carry something, he will always order it for you.”
While his parents were still alive, Junior left the store for a year to work for the Post Office. However, he became frustrated by coworkers and bored with the routine. The benefits were great, he said, but he belongs at Puerto Rico Foods.
“I was used to working here, from eight in the morning until ten at night. So imagine, working at the Post Office from seven to three, it was a breeze! I was like, ‘oh, that’s it? I’m done? Alright! Shit, now what do I do? When I was working there I saw how there are a lot of lazy people, people who don’t have goals. One day my father was like, ‘why don’t you just come back to the store?’ And I was like, ‘you know what? That sounds like a good fucking idea.”
Junior’s philosophy is simple: listen to the customer. He takes special orders, he learns what individual customers buy, and he’s not afraid to change inventory. He stresses the importance of staying in contact with the customer, and he is active on Beer Menu, Beer Advocate, Rate Beer, Twitter, Facebook, and email lists. He has a perfect five star rating on Yelp, and a 99/100 rating on Beer Advocate. Puerto Rican vegetables are out, and craft beer is in.
“What helps out is when people come in and they see what they need. Somebody came in here and they tell me, ‘you don’t carry Lavazza coffee?’ And I go, ‘what the fuck is that?’ and they go, ‘it’s an Italian coffee.’ ‘Nope, but the next time you come in here we’ll have it.’ And what do I do? I go out of my way to find it. Start carrying it. Now I got a good two or three customers that come in here every week. They buy two or three of these. Every week without fail. And when they come in for this they come in for other stuff. Somebody came in today asking for dental floss…now it’s on my list for tomorrow.”
Junior isn’t the type of boss to sit by idly while employees bear the brunt of the work, and customers often tease him for doing most of the cleaning. The entire time I spoke with Junior, he had a feather duster sticking out of his back pocket, and while he thought about answers to my questions, he rearranged bottles, or absentmindedly brushed dust from shelves.
“It’s my store,” he says, “The day that you get a Mercedes, who’s going to wash it for you? You think your neighbors are going to wash it for you? No, you are. Because that’s your baby. So you gotta take care of it. I gotta take care of my store. When I get meat for the store I make sure it’s good meat. Cause I’m going to eat from the meats here. If I’m going to sell ground beef, I’m not going to sell bullshit ground beef.”
Junior’s attention to detail and pride in his store’s success has resulted in a near-perfect inspection record. According to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Puerto Rico Food & Liquor has been found in compliance for all inspections ranging from Oct 2002 to present. The only mix-up happened when Junior’s parents died in 2010 and he was too busy attending to his mother’s affairs to transfer the business license into his name. This resulted in a six-month delay in liquor sales. For a small business that relies on being a pit stop for craft beer aficionados, this delay was devastating.
The City of Chicago issued a citation reading, “Puerto Rico Foods was issued citations for failure to notify Business Affairs and Consumer Protection of change of ownership due to Mr. & Mrs. Domingo Claudio passing away and Domingo Claudio Jr. running the business.”
The time surround his parent’s death was difficult for Junior to discuss. Running the business together meant that Junior had been working with his parents since he was 12 years old.
“When my mom died, she was the one on the liquor license. The city made me wait six months to get a new one. That was rough. My sales were down from a couple thousand a day to about four hundred. Finally, they call me downtown. I was sitting in the waiting room, and when they said, ‘Puerto Rico Foods,’ and I could see my license in the lady’s hands, I literally broke down. I started crying. Cause my mother had just passed away, and so many things were going wrong and all. It was real rough. But thank God. I mean, every time I think about it, I’m like, ‘thank the Lord God.”
The burden the City of Chicago places on small businesses can be disastrous, especially if an unforeseen expense crops up. Fees and taxes are constantly rising, threatening the existence of the corner stores so integral to Chicago culture. According to Junior, even a perfect inspection record comes at a cost. At his last inspection, the inspector praised the store’s cleanliness, but then informed Junior that the inspection fee was $350.
“The thing that I hate about the City of Chicago is the way they milk businesses, man,” Junior notes bitterly.
However hard the times may be, Junior has proved that he can withstand change, hardship, and time. Humboldt Park has always been a neighborhood undergoing some sort of change, but Junior is thriving by adapting to the times without losing his identity. Chicago’s neighborhoods are constantly in flux, but it’s the little stores like Puerto Rico Foods that add texture to an otherwise monotonous city.
I asked Junior what his secret was, how he has been so successful.
He thought for a moment, and then said with a smile, “I’m in debt. I believe in God a lot.”