Success stories

Tienda Mexicana El Cuñao

St. Louis, MIchigan

The workers who grow our food need food. Vanessa Muniz makes sure they get what they need – and it goes well beyond food.

Her store, Tienda Mexicana El Cuñao, in St. Louis, Mich., is smack-dab in the middle of the Michigan mitten, surrounded by farms growing grains, fruit, vegetables and flowers, and working the dairy farms of Gratiot County. Many of the people are migrants from Mexico. “They stay two or three years, long enough to build a house in Mexico,” Vanessa said. “I see lots of pictures of houses-in-progress.”

That’s because Tienda Mexicana El Cuñao provides a vital economic link – check cashing and money transfers. Thursdays are paydays and Vanessa is smack-dab in the middle of that too. All three employees (Muniz, her mother, and her daughter, plus her husband as a “volunteer”) run the registers and wrangle the lines, which often wind through the colorful aisles.

There’s more. Besides food and finances; Vanessa has helped scores of workers with “interviews, car stuff, payments,” translating and wading through documents and resources. “I get close to them,” she said. “And they tell their friends, ‘Go to Vanessa; you’ll like the way she treats you.”

The Altar for Mother Mary

And now she’s helping them from a building she owns. Northern Initiatives partnered with Commercial Bank to help Muniz buy the building her store has been in since 2016. She took ownership in May 2023 and immediately got to work on a new roof, new pipes and, thankfully, a new deck. “My mom fell through the old one – twice!” Vanessa said.

She also added a “waiting room” for those Thursday paydays. It doubles as a dining area for the resident food truck, Tacqueria El Primo.

The building came with two long-term renters, including the food truck. An additional microloan helped pay first-year taxes and insurance, as well as those repairs and maintenance.

Stocking everyone’s favorite foods and other items means cooperation with tons of other local businesses – flour tortillas from Saginaw, corn tortillas from Grand Rapids, two bakery orders – one from National Supermarket and one from Supermercado Mexico, both in Grand Rapids – and monthly trips to Chicago. “We treat it like a date,” Muniz smiled. “Leave the kids at mom’s.”

Having family members as employees is intentional as well as responsible, Muniz said. The money-transfer and check-cashing services are vital to both the business and its customers, but there’s tons of sensitive information being sent. Muniz needs to trust her staff.

The one thing Tienda Mexicana el Cuñao doesn’t sell (yet) is meat, due to a lack of freezer space. There’s a room with potential, but right now it’s being used by Muniz’s three kids, ages 13, 12, and 8, to do homework.

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