Community engagement is one of those terms that has become trendy in Detroit development circles. Developers are starting to see the value of asking residents about their needs in a neighborhood, rather than building what they think will be a good fit.
While this approach is producing promising results in parts of the city, this community-first mentality has served as the foundation for success for many longtime establishments in Detroit, including Algo Especial, a Mexican-owned grocery store in Hubbard-Richard that is recognized among fans as a home cook’s oasis.
“I take very good care about the needs of the community,” says owner Martha Hernandez in Spanish through an interpreter.
Just about every item stocked on its shelves is informed by the needs of customers, from the crates overflowing with culturally relevant produce, dried chiles and beans by the bag-full, masa or lard by the pound, discs of Mexican hot chocolate, bottled hot sauces, imported clothing, beauty products, and dozens of rare loose leaf teas and herbs — essential for the home cooks out there looking for hard-to-find ingredients.
Customers from all over metro Detroit, elsewhere in Michigan, and even across the Canadian border know Hernandez and her many relatives who work in the 42-year-old establishment on a first-name basis and folks regularly make it a point upon entering the shop to give at least one family member a hug. During the holidays, Algo Especial is a favorite destination for its fluffy and bountiful tamales, which fans purchase by the dozen. For treating common ailments or a spiritual cleansing, longtime clients will turn to the store’s robust collection of teas and herbs — traditional remedies in Latinx culture that date back centuries.
Hernandez’s nephew, Huriel Gonzalez-Hernandez, tells Eater that the shop had previously been a Spanish-language record store in 1980 prior to his aunt and uncle Raul taking over. The couple had been customers of the store and one day after Raul was laid off from his job at General Motors the shop owner offered to sell them the business.
Over time, the duo became known for taking special requests from their Mexican immigrant clientele for other essentials: VHS tapes for Spanish-language movies, cosmetics only available in Latin America, and eventually the family added produce, a full-service butchers counter, and prepared food to its offerings. Today, other restaurant and food business owners also frequently turn to Algo Especial for wholesale items like cases of candy or commercial-sized cookware.
While many more supermercados have opened in Detroit in the decades since Algo Especial opened and offer some of the same items, customers have come to rely on Hernandez’s attention to detail for those traditional ingredients that remind them of home.
“There are certain things that are here that are in other places [but] it’s just that the community comes here first to purchase it because [we have] been having it for such a long time,” Hernandez says.