Small Business Lessons: Mi Tierra Latina is giving Latin American expats a sense of place

For our Small Business issue, we asked 14 B.C. businesses how they're surviving in this economy. Here's one of them

You’d think that launching a series of grocery stores in this economy would be a fool’s errand. But it doesn’t take long to realize that the team behind Mi Tierra Latina—a chain of Latin American grocery stores establishing B.C. outposts with the speed and precision of a professional Risk player—are no fools.

When a store selling Latin American goods in Vancouver’s West End was shuttered, a group of entrepreneurs run- ning a nearby café purchased its unsold products to help out the owners. In addition to that coffee shop, Nilka Garcia, Alexandra Osan, Michelle Rustrian and Sonia Zebadua were already operating a cleaning services business in the city. But they saw quickly how much potential a store focused on Latin American groceries could have in Vancouver.

“We noticed that all the products were selling,” says Osan. “We had Colombians, Argentinians, Guatemalans looking for products and asking us for more. The list of products they wanted started growing and growing. So we said, Well, why not have this concept of a Latin American store that doesn’t just focus on one community, but brings them all together?”

In 2021, the quartet opened a store on Davie Street. Expansion has been rapid since, with stores in Burnaby, North Vancouver and Coquitlam, as well as two on Commercial Drive. Today, Mi Tierra Latina (translation: My Latin Land) has around 15 employees. Walking through its large flagship shop on the Drive, one is struck not just by the aisles full of spices, jars and cans that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the city, but also by the way the aisles themselves are labelled. Like with a wine sec- tion in a liquor store, aisles are identified not by the products in them but by the countries those products come from. Signs jut out every which way, urging customers to explore Mexico, Peru, Chile and other countries.

The key to Mi Tierra Latina’s success—at a time when grocery prices are higher than ever and exports are often backlogged—has been that aggressive expansion. “We really wanted to expand rapidly into main streets, because we wanted to bring in more volume,” explains Osan. “With one or two stores, you can’t bring in full pallets of products and offer lower prices.”

Right now, says Osan, Brazilian products are the most expensive to bring in, but they’ve worked with a few different suppliers, some of which are located in the States. The company has also found ways to connect with specific communities by holding special events in its stores.

“We started a partnership with a person who is bringing fresh vegetables and fruits in from Peru,” says Rustrian.

“We promoted it to the Peruvian community, and they were so thankful. It went so fast. Peruvians don’t have a fresh market here really. Everyone was excited—they came here to have those flavours they miss from home.”

And if you’re a touch intimidated by the colossal range of choices in Mi Tierra Latina’s stores, the founders are also working to make their products more accessible to those not from Latin America. Rustrian and Zebadua are from Mexico, and Garcia is “from Colombia and Venezuela, depending on the day you ask her,” according to Osan, who is from Romania.

“I had a very basic knowl- edge of Latin flavours when we started this,” adds Osan, who learned mostly from the public tastings the stores host on weekends. “I was like, Wow, this is so good. Now I actually know what a feijoada is.”