2023 Frank Kirkpatrick Award Recipient - Ernesto and Olivia Villarreal

Villarreals commitment to culture, community has significantly influenced Milwaukee’s south side

More than 45 years ago, to purchase authentic Mexican goods in Milwaukee, like corn tortillas, your best bet was to travel south to Chicago. Very few stores locally carried such products.

Ernesto Villarreal, his two brothers and their wives set out to change that.  

When they opened their business in 1978, Super Mercado El Rey at 1023 S. Cesar Chavez Drive, it was the first Latino business on the street. The family has since built what has become one of the kings of local grocery store chains and their company - El Rey Enterprises – has built an empire along the Clarke Square corridor. Today El Rey is the sixth largest minority-owned business in Milwaukee’s metro area with more than 400 employees and $94 million in revenue. 

A growth in the local Hispanic population, an ever-growing appreciation for Mexican food and products and loyal customers have led to its success. Generations of families have faithfully brought their products over the years and many local restaurants feature their flavorful Lemon Nacho Tostaditas as a table top staple. 

They wanted to be successful, Ernesto said, but in the beginning, their main goal was survival. He and his late brothers, Heriberto & Armando, started the business with their spouses, who as a group were bound and determined to succeed. They all worked second jobs in the early years, enabling company profits to be reinvested in the company. In time, one by one, they were all able to move to the company full time to build the business.  

Their first location, Mercado El Rey, was a little over 1,000-square-foot. Since then, they have moved and expanded that location three times. They have also opened three additional locations – El Rey Foodmart, 1320 W. Burnham St., El Rey Plaza, 3524 W. Burnham St., and El Rey Family Market, 5200 W. Oklahoma Ave. Their tortilla factory, 1530 S. Muskego Ave., is a significant wholesale supplier of items to restaurants and other area grocery stores throughout southeastern Wisconsin. 

Growth was slow and deliberate. 

“We were making sure we were ready,” said Ernesto, 75, who has lived in Milwaukee since emigrating from near Monterrey, Mexico in the 1960s. 

While building their business, they have been just as busy building community. They hire from the community and their stores carry products that reflect the tastes and preferences of customers who live in nearby neighborhoods. 

“We try and do our best to keep good items, bring new items and new ideas,” Ernesto said. “We grow with the community and if it wasn’t for the community, El Rey would not be there.” 

They believe in creating an environment that people want to keep coming back to. Color, culture, community and comida – every El Rey store is known for those elements. Most of the stores have restaurants inside, carry a wide variety of products and are decorated with brightly colored pinatas and décor. 

Over the years, the Villarreals have been as committed to the surrounding community as they have the culture. When they first opened the store on what was then South 16th Street, they were surrounded by a number of bars and boarded up buildings. When they had the financial capital to buy additional properties, they began doing so to change the commercial landscape.  

“We buy properties to make them better and bring new businesses into the neighborhood,” said Ernesto. “We want to make the street the best that it can be.”

Today El Rey owns 22 sites with more than 50 commercial and residential tenants – all on Milwaukee’s south side. It won a Mayor’s Design Award in 2018 for façade upgrades it made to a string of commercial properties located a block south of its flagship location on Cesar Chavez Drive. The buildings are more than 100 years old and renovations cost more than $200,000. 

Public art has become a fixture on and around many of the Villarreal-owned properties. Several properties along Cesar Chavez contain colorful murals created by local Latino artists and honoring the culture. A gathering space located immediately outside of their Cesar Chavez location has a life-size bronze sculpture of the activist. The Villarreals donated a corner portion of their property in the Historic Mitchell Street neighborhood so that it could be transformed into Butterfly Park, which features a community-designed mural by artist Tia Richardson. The store’s northern face is also home to several murals by Richardson, designed with and for community over the course of three years. 

“It is a lot of fun to bring some life and pride to our street that we are on,” said Nelson Lang, Ernesto’s son-in-law who manages the Oklahoma Avenue store. He is one of several second and third generation family members who have become integral to the business.

Villarreal says the future looks bright for El Rey because family is helping continue the tradition. And while he has scaled back his hours, he still comes to work five days a week, visiting the stores and chatting with customers. 

“Whenever I open the door, it seems like it gives me energy,” Ernesto said. “It’s always been that way.”