A new idea: Euro-style convenience store debuts in lower Valley

BROWNSVILLE. A Houston based company in reinventing the convenience store, and they´re starting here.

The former Martinez Exxon/Shamrock service station at 2300 N. Expressway has been transformed in to Mercato & Co., which resembles a traditional convenience store only because there are Phillips 66 gas pumps out front, but other than that is more like what you´d find motoring across Spain or Italy.

That´s according to Juan Palmada, head of business development for the company, which he said chose Brownsville for its inaugural store partly because the property was available but also because of demographic changes taking place here.

“We brought some ideas and some concepts from Europe, where convenience stores are more place to hang out and eat good food and good beverages on your way to anywhere, our just stop by for a refreshment”. Palmada said.

The Mercato & Co. Concept is “gourmet on the go,” according to its website, with a focus on quality organic foods international and domestic, craft and imported beers, and fine wines from around the world – France, Italy, New Zeland, Spain and eventually Texas. The store features high-end coffee, is bringing in a Brownsville based coffee bean roasting company, and doubles as a spot to sip a caffeinated beverage in a nice atmosphere, Palmada said.

Another key aspect, one that’s already proving popular, is the store’s offerings from local vendors, he said, describing the entire concept as a “very unique experience.” Mercato & Co., whose parent company is Unico, will soon open another location in Houston and probably will bring additional locations to the Rio Grande Valley, Palmada said.

“We see the growth in Brownsville, McAllen,” he said. “I’m not saying no to another one. It depends also on what kind of (real estate) deals that we can get.”

Palmada wonders why European-style convenience stores aren’t already in this country, noting that the response to the Brownsville location has been enthusiastic despite minimal advertising. Located at the high-visibility intersection of Ruben Torres Boulevard and I-69E/N. Expressway 77/83, the shop held its grand opening June 17 with a Brownsville Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The first sign that Mercato & Co. is something beyond the usual is the hand-painted mural on the store’s south exterior wall. That artwork and an interior fresco are the work of Houston artist Betirri Bengtson. Palmada said the company also plans to park a food truck, possibly an espresso bar on wheels, next to the main shop.

“The whole lot is ours, so we can develop more things on it,” he said. And while the store may tweak its offerings when necessary to satisfy local tastes (it is a business after all and the aim is to make money), “we try to shoot for the good stuff,” Palmada said. He admitted that the process of transforming the former gas station into Mercato & Co. has been slow and challenging, in part due to permitting snags, but that it all came together in the end.

“Finally we succeeded putting together everything,” Palmada said. “There’s always challenges when you open something like this. It’s our flagship and it’s our first one and it’s in Brownsville. Definitely we want to be different. We took the risk, but it’s working out.”

By Steve Clark – The Brownsville Herald