Heriberto (1940) and Ernesto Villarreal (1948) were born in Mexico. It is hard to write about the life of either individually, as their lives and accomplishments are so intertwined. Beto came to the United States with his father, Octavio, in 1960. Octavio was able to move his wife and the other children, including Ernesto, to Milwaukee in 1964. Beto had finished his secondary and preparatory education in Mexico before coming to Wisconsin. Ernesto obtained his education here in the south side of Milwaukee at Vieu School and then Milwaukee Boys Technical School. Heriberto and Ernesto were brought up to work hard and they began working at Mercury Marine at a very early age. During this time their father, Octavio, owned and operated a small corner grocery store. The Hispanic population in Milwaukee grew rapidly in the 1960’s. Industry was booming and many Hispanic people had moved North seeking jobs and a better life for their families. The men often came here first and found work. As they got established here, they sent money back home for a time and then brought their families to Milwaukee as soon as they could afford to. Octavio’s store was a gathering for these new immigrants. They were so homesick but also grateful to be in the United States and have employment. Because of their father’s limited resources, it was hard to stock many grocery items that the Mexican immigrants were familiar with. Beto had started to work part time in another small grocery store that also tried to cater to the Mexican people.
In 1978, Ernesto and Heriberto Villarreal decided to open a store on a larger scale. The original Super Mercado El Rey was opened, located at 1023 South Cesar E. Chavez Dr., in Milwaukee. Their sole purpose was to bring products from Mexico to the people of Milwaukee. Little did they know, El Rey would grow into one of the largest Hispanic owned corporations in Wisconsin. In the early 1980’s Mexican food became very popular. This trend set up the Villarreal’s other branch of their business, wholesaling Hispanic food products. A corn tortilla factory was set up at 5th St. to provide many of Milwaukee’s favorite local restaurants with tortillas, chips and tamales. The original store was renovated for expansion three times over the years to accommodate for the growing customer demands. In 1995, El Rey opened a 2nd retail location on 35th & Burnham, called El Rey Plaza.
As the Hispanic population’s makeup changed, so did El Rey’s products. In the beginning, Milwaukee’s Hispanic people were mostly from Mexico, so El Rey was catering to the people from Mexico. New immigrants from Central and South America as well as the Caribbean started to arrive. El Rey shifted business to accommodate the food tastes and preferences of Milwaukee’s entire Hispanic population. In 1999, El Rey Food Mart opened on 13th & Forest Home, and El Rey relocated the tortilla factory to a bigger facility at 1530 South Muskego Ave. The three stores and distribution flourished as El Rey further identified Milwaukee’s need for authentic Hispanic cuisine.
Ernesto and Heriberto have brought together a unique blend of foods from different parts of the world as well as adapting to American and Wisconsin ingenuity. For example, in making the corn tortillas and tostadita chips, the corn is steeped in large cooking tanks and then ground with large stones. The recipe used is from Mexico, but the corn used comes from Wisconsin and Iowa. Also, Mexican cheese recipes have also made it to the Wisconsin cheese factories, and the many different Mexican cheeses have never tasted so good. Combining authentic Hispanic recipes with the superior resources of the United States have made Ernesto and Heriberto feel that they have the best of all worlds!
Eventually in 2007, the El Rey Super Mercado moved from its original location across the street to a brand new building at 916 South Cesar E. Chavez Drive. As many customers were sad to see the original store go, the customers were given new place to shop. El Rey Super Mercado is covered with painted murals depicting historic tales and culture, and filled with new equipment to continue to offer customers the El Rey experience.
El Rey takes pride in the authentic products they offer, but also the authentic experience and service provided by El Rey Employees. After the opening of El Rey Family Market on 51st & Oklahoma in 2011, the company now employs over 400 people of which a majority is minorities. On an annual basis, many adult groups and schools visit El Rey to learn about the Hispanic culture. They experience hands-on learning and exposure to many unique foods of the Hispanic origin, as well as a shopping and working environment of Hispanics home countries. Many teachers have told us they look forward to visiting El Rey, because we provide an opportunity for them to learn outside of textbooks.
El Rey, Ernesto and Heriberto are strongly rooted in the Milwaukee south side community. The Villarreal Family feels a sense of belonging to this community, and is committed to giving back to the growing Hispanic Community. El Rey enjoys supporting the annual festivities and fund raising events of many local organizations, schools and churches.
In Ernesto and Heriberto’s business there is a true sense of family. Their wives, Olivia and Criselda have been working at their side since the inception of the business in 1978. As their children grew and finished school, one by one, they joined the company as well as their spouses. Ernesto and Heriberto have never thought of themselves as great entrepreneurs, they only desired to build their business to serve the people of southeast Wisconsin. They are humbled by El Rey’s continued success and feel very blessed by their family.