Honeybee Market La Colmena has been a staple of the food scene in southwest Detroit since 1956. Owners Ken Koehler and Tammy Alfaro-Koehler purchased the store from her mother 11 years ago. They recently built a modern 14,000-square-foot market on the site of the original to include a wider selection of products, including a new hot foods area.
Metro Times: I assume La Colmena means honeybee.
Tammy Alfaro-Koehler: No. Actually as the story goes, my grandfather said that the honeybee represents the customers and La Colmena is the hive the store where the bees gather.
MT: I have shopped at your old market for at least 25 years. Your new market is awesome. What prompted you to make this sort of investment?
Alfaro-Koehler: It's a big commitment. Ken and I have always wanted to have a bigger and better store. It has been our goal to grow to a new level and to give back to the community that has supported my family's business for so long and to make it possible for the people of the area to have access to the foods that they want without having to leave the neighborhood to shop. Also, we wanted to provide a Mexican shopping experience for people from out of the area to enjoy. We are geared to build up the prepared foods section. Right now we have a few varieties of tacos, several salads, and one or two daily specials. Today we are serving guisado de Puerco, a pork stew. We actually have customers such as the crew from the Ambassador Bridge and the produce terminal that will order 50 or 100 tacos at a time.
MT: How has your customer profile changed in recent years?
Alfaro-Koehler: We are seeing more downtown residents shop here. I recently spoke to an Indian man who lives downtown. Indian cuisine utilizes many of the same ingredients as Mexican food lots of fresh produce and some of the same spices and herbs, especially cilantro and cumin, onions, garlic and tomatoes. He is in here all the time. He is always complimentary about our stuff. He sounds like he's a good cook. Our customers are very fussy about quality, so we carry the best produce that we can find. We tried selling smaller oranges and apples, for instance, to be able to sell them at lower prices. They didn't sell. People demand quality. Ken spent several years working at Westborn Market before we got together. Westborn has always been known for the quality of their foods. Also, there's has quite a bit of residential growth in the immediate area. My sister just bought a new house down the street from the market. There are several new developments. We are lucky to be a part of it.
MT: Mexican food has been considered by many gringos to be corn kitchen variety, ignoring the complex salsas and moles and other treatments of meats and seafood that are part of the diverse Mexican culture and its cuisine. Is there a changing awareness of Mexican food as a fine cuisine?
Alfaro-Koehler: We are finding that many people who did not learn to cook when they were young are now saying, "I wish that I had learned to cook before my grandmother passed away." Posole, menudo or tripe, barbacoa, made with cow's head and guisados or stews are some of the indigenous dishes that are distinguished from the tacos and enchiladas. I also feel that the fusions of different cuisines are resulting in a change in the way people prepare and eat food today.
MT: Has the increased popularity of Mexican food made more products available to you and to your customers? What else is in store for us?
Alfaro-Koehler: We are constantly looking at new products. There are Hispanic food shows that highlight the newest items. Now that we have more space, we are on the lookout. I have to tell you about a dehydrated salsa verde (Mi Viehita brand) green sauce that surprised us. All you do is boil water and mix it with the packaged ingredients. It is really good and takes about a minute to make. Perfect for unexpected guests. We are planning to do some food demos and provide samples for people to try. We want to have someone cooking in the store on the weekends outside of our kitchen. Someone suggested cooking classes too. It's something that we are considering.
MT: How about a recipe.
Alfaro-Koehler: For our grand opening, there were representatives from Supremo, a Mexican foods vendor. One of the things that they made was really good and easy too. Mix sour cream and salsa bottled or fresh. It makes a great dipping sauce for tortilla chips. Another dish that they prepared was toasted or grilled caribe cheese. They just put chunks of the cheese on a hotplate until it browned a little. It was delicious.
MT: Any thoughts of opening another market out of southwest Detroit?
Alfaro-Koehler: I suppose that the second one would be easier to build than the first, but this has been a big project, and we have four kids. No way.
Honeybee Market La Colmena is at 2443 Bagley St. (at 18th Street) in Detroit. Call 313-237-0295 for information.
Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]