Howdy folks, and welcome back to Houston Historic Retail. Today, we’re taking a deep dive into what might arguably be Houston’s largest grocer, La Michoacana El Ahorro, Sellers Bros, Arlans, et al. For those of you wondering why I’m taking on what you might consider a “small fry” in the Houston grocery market, hold on to your butts unless you work for LMM; this company is bigger than you think. Before we start, I have to include a bit of pedantry. In this article, we’ll discuss the stores owned and operated by Rafael Ortega and his related companies. Mr. Ortega’s method of company record-keeping is substantially different from the competition. His organization is more like a co-op chain, indicating that there may have been partners involved at some point. That being said, it makes record-keeping a bit more difficult so I may miss some existing locations. Finally, while Ortega owns and operates multiple independent chains, they’re usually collectively referred to as La Michoacana. These stores are not only the largest in scope and store count but have become quite a success, and while not representative of every banner, they are a fitting chain to lump everything under. Now, with all the pedantry out of the way, let’s dive into some history, which will be complicated once again. In 1986, Rafael Ortega opened his first La Michoacana Meat Market in a small storefront at the corner of Bissonnet and Lugary.
Ortega had arrived in the United States only about ten years prior and was involved in meat processing. He noted the lack of Mexican-style meat markets, aka Carnicerias, and wanted to fill that gap. The idea was a hit, and within two years, he opened a second location near Sharpstown Mall; however, it wasn’t all smiles and sunshine. One of the earliest issues La Michoacana faced was organized robbery. Ortega and a few other area business owners tried to meet with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce over the matter but couldn’t remedy the issue. Ortega would seek the assistance of HPD, who ended up cracking the case and breaking an organized grocery theft ring. Throughout this entire time, La Michoacana continued to increase in size and scope. A popular update was the addition of in-store taquerias, which turned the stores into gathering places. By the mid-90s, LMM had expanded into small towns outside of Houston, like Rosenberg, Texas City, and Baytown, and they would enter Dallas and the surrounding suburbs by 1996. With the stores growing, new additions, such as Panderias (Bakeries), were tried. The stores were quickly evolving from simple meat markets into small supermarkets. Around 2000, La Michoacana began upgrading older locations to present a more consistent shopping experience. Around this time, La Michoacana would enter into Oklahoma. The growing scope and size of La Michoacana would net Mr. Ortega with his second chain in 2006, El Ahorro.
The first El Ahorro would be located in a former El Rancho Supermercado, yes, that El Rancho. They have an equally complicated history that may have begun in Pasadena, but that’s not today’s focus. Rafael Ortega would purchase one of the multiple El Rancho locations, converting it into “El Ahorro,” which means “The Discount” in Spanish. The following year would net Ortega an opportunity to expand by purchasing the remaining Davis Food City stores and the name. While most would convert to El Ahorro, the original Aldine Mail Route store still sports the Food City name. The Food City name would be used a few times over the years in areas including a former AppleTree and a location in Victoria where LMM and El Ahorro had failed; however, neither of these caught on. In 2007, Ortega would also purchase three Mi Rancho locations to convert to El Ahorro. The chain was gaining much recognition, and in 2010, Save-A-Lot approached Ortega to form a partnership. The discount grocery co-op had been trying the South Texas market since the 90s, failing to find a franchisee. Ortega had been recruited to co-brand a test bed of six stores as El Ahorro/Save-a-Lot. These stores would include service departments, like a bakery, taqueria, and butcher counter. The product selection would be closer to a standard El Ahorro but feature Save-a-Lot house brands. This partnership would only last a few years before Save-A-Lot left the picture, allowing Ortega full control of these stores as well.
During the 2010s, the combined companies broke 100 and then 150 locations shortly after, with a large focus on the suburbs of Houston. Around this time, the growth would switch back to La Michoacana and has stuck that way regarding new stores. The branding of La Michoacana has even been applied to new ventures. Like a full-service restaurant, a chain of seafood restaurants, a chain of medical clinics, and even a massive store with an attached gas station anchoring a small shopping center. La Michoacana has become a force to be reckoned with while maintaining a relatively low profile for most Houston grocery shoppers. In late 2019, the chain took a big step and acquired El Ahorro’s biggest direct competitor, Sellers Bros. The company, which was nearing its 99th birthday, was quietly sold to Ortega, except for the C-Stores, which the Sellers’ family retained. While some aspects of the chain have been updated, Sellers Bros has maintained its own identity. In December 2023, Ortega made another purchase, snatching another one of Houston’s independents, Arlan’s Market. At this point, the game plan for Arlan’s seems to be much like Sellers Bros., keeping things business as usual for now. With these recent acquisitions, the total store count among La Michoacana and the related stores is probably nearly 190, if not above that. While I’m not sure what we’ll see next, my guess is the future of Houston grocery will have lots of influence from Rafael Ortega and La Michoacana.