Northgate Gonzalez Market doesn’t just want to make prepared food. The 37-store chain’s La Cocina department wants to offer customers a homestyle experience.

“I think the most important thing is that our foods, our prepared foods, [are] homemade,” said Luis Aceves, meat buyer for pork, poultry and hot deli categories at Northgate.

“When customers walk into the store, they have that perception that it’s homemade already, so it makes them feel as if they were dining at home.”

And the chain does do a lot of cooking. Aceves approximated that 70% to 80% of the prepared foods are made in-store, including one of its biggest sellers — carnitas.

“I think one of the items that differentiates us are the carnitas, which is a typical famous popular pork meat. Although it’s made at the store level it gets that perception as if it were made at home.”

Another big seller for the chain is charbroiled chicken and fresh salsa.

This retailer takes its homemade salsa seriously. Stores will typically offer three to eight different kinds, depending on the store size. The salsa could be merchandised in the cocina, in a cold case or in the “La Palapa” area of the store.

“I mean any dish in most Latin cuisines can’t go without a good salsa. It’s a good complement,” Aceves said.

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Some of Northgate’s cocinas are open for breakfast, a meal that has been tough to crack for many supermarkets. The chain offers options like eggs with cactus or chilaquiles, “which is a traditional breakfast item as well in the Mexican cuisine. It’s tortilla chips, with some salsa, and you put egg on top and cheese as well,” said Aceves.

For lunch and dinner, individual combos retail at $5.99 and include rice, beans and meat. The retailer also offers prepared meal solutions for big and small groups.

“We sell meal solutions that feed anywhere from four people up to 50,” Aceves said.

Northgate keeps the price per portion for these group meals in the single low digits. Its most popular four-person meal runs from $10.99 to $12.99.

“And that consists of a pound of meat of carnitas, a pound of beans, rice, half a pound of salsa and a dozen tortillas,” he said.

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The chain has also introduced a new meals format. Several new stores now have incorporated a restaurant-style Taqueria Cocina, according to Aceves.

“So we also offer fast menu, which include tacos, burritos, Mexican-style sandwiches as well.”

Aceves said probably 10 to 13 locations have these taquerias, which also have a small dining area. While the cocina taquerias are popular, he said one location that especially focuses on creating a traditional Mexican ambiance is particularly successful. In general, Aceves said creating a comfortable ambiance for customers is important to Northgate.

“We try to make it feel as if you were going back to your homeland country. That’s what we usually try to do at all stores in all departments.”

“Any dish in most Latin cuisines can’t go without a good salsa. It’s a good complement,” says Northgate’s Luis Aceves. Northgate stores typically offer up to eight salsas.Northgate creates this experience by using specific flooring, seating, lighting and decorations, Aceves said. Some stores might hang a sombrero in the center store or meals area.

“That kind of reminds them of going back to the ranch, in a small town, kind of ambience.”

When asked about how Northgate makes sure to provide meal options that are appealing to both its first-generation American shoppers and second-generation shoppers, Aceves explained that people in both groups look for traditional meals.

“Believe it or not we have so many second-generation customers that still go out and seek these types of items just because that it was passed on from their families — from the first generation. They value that homestyle meal.”

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However, Aceves noted that both groups are also looking for healthier options across the different departments due to the incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure in the Hispanic community.

“So we’re starting some type of trend and what we’re trying to do now little by little we’re trying to incorporate a healthier alternative menu. And we’re going to actually start with one store as a model, and we’re working on some recipes already.”

While the menu is still in the development stage, Aceves said dishes might include ingredients such as steamed vegetables, leaner cuts of meat and more lean seafood.

The new additional menu initiative is part of Northgate’s Viva La Salud program. As previously reported by SN, Viva La Salud is a cross-department wellness program that includes features like new shelf tags, healthier products, free cooking classes by a chef and eating classes by an in-store nutritionist.

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Overall, Northgate’s approach to prepared foods seems to be well received by shoppers. One customer review on Yelp wrote about the department at Northgate’s Chula Vista, Calif.,  location.

“My favorite part of Northgate is their hot deli — La Cocina. Too tired to cook dinner, after grocery shopping? Grab a family meal, on your way out. How can you go wrong with tasty beef barbacoa tacos, with a side of beans, rice and salsa?” wrote the customer.

And for Northgate, it’s all about pleasing customers. The retailer places a heavy emphasis on full-service departments across the store including the meat, seafood, bakery and fresh tortilla departments.

“At the end of the day we try to offer the highest quality to our customers. Our customers are what we work for,” Aceves said.