The intersection of FM 802/Ruben Torres and I-69C is among Brownsville’s busiest corners.
An old-school filling station with gas pumps and cars jacked up on lifts stood on that location for years. Even as Sunrise Mall’s renovation and rebirth loomed behind it, the 1970s-era gas station lingered, a holdout to the past with new developments all around it.
The pressure to sell such a coveted corner of real estate finally prevailed with the old Exxon on 802 being converted to a stylish European-style version of the American convenience store. Mercato & Company with its green walls and exterior artwork bills itself as “a Euro-style on-the-go fueling stop.”
It is indeed that with functioning gas pumps adjoining a busy expressway running just west of the store. The high-end store is also – in the words of a company executive – a “new spot that can attract a more curated pallet.”
It’s the description from Arlene Ventura, who oversees production selection and social media strategies for the Houston-based company that opened Mercato. She is the wife of Ricardo Valatini, the company’s primary owner. Ventura’s pick of products includes a wide variety of items made by Rio Grande Valley companies. Chocolates and cilantro sauces made in Brownsville are on the store’s shelves along with Rio Red grapefruit jelly from Harlingen.
“Some of our products have big followings, but they don’t always have enough venues,” Ventura said. “Now people can come to our store and support their local vendors. We’re giving them a platform to sell.”
Connecting To Community
The local connections are important ones for Mercato.
Juan Palmada, Mercato’s business development director, estimates that up to 60 percent of what’s stocked at the store comes from local and state sources. Willie Nelson-branded cookies and bottles of South Texas honey blend in with fine cheeses and wines that are imported from Europe and South America.
“It’s a big part of the concept to include and celebrate local products,” Ventura said. “It says we’re here as part of the community.”
Mercato opened in mid-June as the first of its kind Euro-style store in the Valley. Picture a convenience store with a more artful and elegant presence with imported wines to go with chocolates and chips. Palmada said the store’s concept and look fits in well with Brownsivlle’s new SpaceX-flavored vibe.
“We wanted to enhance the quality of the convenience store in the U.S.,” he said. “People coming to Brownsville are looking for something like this. It’s a good fit and it’s good for the community. Brownsville is a very dynamic place right now.”
Palmera and Ventura have been heartened by the local welcome their business has received.
Mercato’s customers cut across all age ranges, they said, with plenty walking in just to take a look at a store with a different concept and distinctively different look from the typical American convenience store.
“We’ve had the community embrace us,” Ventura said. “There are companies across the city that are transforming Brownsville. We believe we’ve stepped forward to be one of them.”
The company is scouting the Valley to add another location, Palmera said. Wherever that may be it will get the same splash of exterior art as the Brownsville store features. A Houston artist painted an eco-friendly mural of leaves and wine bottles on Mercato’s south wall.
“A clean look and feel with clear colors,” is how Palmera described it.
It is that and worth a look on the corner of 802 and the expressway.