Zocalo family discovers hot sales strategy at markets

Two months after Marco, Luis and Lucero Martinez-Obregon opened Zocalo, the trailblazing Mexican restaurant, in the summer of 1995, their landlord approached them. Would the siblings consider purchasing the property at the corner of 10th and Piedmont, including two other restaurant buildings, some shops, and the corner parking lot? The asking price: $600,000.

The young entrepreneurs recognized a deal, but cash-strapped and stretched thin running their new restaurant, they declined. Today, the property is worth millions. And Zocalo, which once included multiple locations and an upscale spinoff called Oh … Maria!, has scaled back and regrouped to survive a recession. Some rental income on a valuable commercial property would come in handy about now.

Still, Zocalo is hanging in there. How? By tapping into a growing, grass-roots consumer group: farmers market shoppers.

“It’s become a way to capitalize the restaurant,” says Luis Martinez, explaining that he, his wife, Sonia, and his brother Marco (sister Lucero is currently working in New York City) pay Zocalo, the restaurant, to make and package Zocalo Salsas. “For us, this is not extra income; Sonia and me are living on this.”

They launched the side venture in the summer of 2007, around the same time they were forced, for financial reasons, to close Zocalo Decatur and Zocola Grant Park. The idea was to market a line of salsas to grocery stores. But first they tested the recipes at the Saturday morning Peachtree Road Farmers Market.

“Since the first day, we were like, ‘Whoa, there’s something going on here with the salsa,’” Martinez recalls. “So we literally put aside the plans for the big stores, and we realized we could sell more salsa at the farmers markets. It was the best way to interact directly with the customer, plus we could see that it was good extra money.”

If you’ve been to a farmers market in metro Atlanta, you’ve probably spotted the Zocalo Salsas booth. The Martinezes maintain a consistent presence at markets throughout Atlanta, Chattanooga and Tampa. Applying the skills they’ve learned from operating Zocalo, they run a tidy booth: a colorful row of clearly labeled salsas, a big bowl of chips for sampling, a friendly salesperson ready to answer questions and offer recipe suggestions. Although the salsas can be used as dips, the company emphasizes traditional use of Mexican salsas and moles—for cooking.  

“In Mexico, we don’t know the concept of chips and salsas; we use the salsas to enhance the flavor of whatever is your meal,” Luis Martinez says. “What we say is that these salsas can be used for Mexican meals, but they can go beyond Mexican meals.”

Flavors range from creamy arbol to smoky chipotle, traditional verde and roja salsas, multilayered moles, and a killer-hot, chutney-like habanero blend.

Clearly, customers love them. Last season Marco, Luis, and Sonia sold 54,000 units of salsa. This year they expect to sell about 70,000 units at nearly 30 farmers markets. And their tamales—made with vegetable oil and filled with chicken, pork or cheese—are selling like, well, hot tamales.

Luis Martinez says he’s discovered a surprise kinship with his market customers and fellow vendors: Like him, they share a love of authenticity, especially as it applies to food. Farmers markets are all about food roots, food culture, food integrity. Zocalo’s mission has always been to serve real Mexican food. (For its first decade or so, the owners resisted diners’ demands for starter chips and salsas. They eventually relinquished.)

“Being in the markets has been such a wonderful experience,” he says. “You’re able to know all kinds of people, not only the customers but all of the vendors. It really becomes a kind of family. Everyone is very authentic, very truthful about what they’re doing, and all of them have such great intentions.”

Martinez admits it sounds cheesy, but he says that participation in the farmers markets has renewed his faith in the existence of people who share his passion for real food. “And for me,” he says, “That’s been the bottom line.”

Image: Sonia and Luis Martinez with their children—Santiago, 10, and Emilio, 6—at a Zocalo Salsas market booth.