Tulsa newcomer Antonio Perez knew all about the city's flourishing Hispanic population when he relocated from Southern California with his family last year.
The Los Angeles businessman had relatives here, one of several reasons he left behind the congestion and high prices of the West Coast for a less-hectic lifestyle.
"I was looking for a nice, quiet place to live," Perez said. "I moved to Tulsa to take it easy and relax. Then I saw all this."
What he found was a community ripe for business expansion, and it didn't take long for the 20-year veteran of the wholesale industry to start building a name for himself among Tulsa's Hispanic residents.
Within months of his arrival, Perez bought a building to house the Tulsa counterpart of his Los Angeles company, Perez Distributing, which supplies Hispanic-brand health and beauty products to chain retailers such as Walgreen and Kmart.
Then last December, he purchased Las Americas, a 10,000-square-foot Hispanic market and restaurant at 2118 E. Third St. that opened two years ago.
His most recent investments are an enclosed shopping mall on the southeast corner of 21st Street and Garnett Road, and a lot with a small house next to Las Americas.
So far, Perez has made a hefty investment in the properties, including $650,000 for Las Americas and $1.7 million for the mall, located in the heart of the Hispanic business district in east Tulsa.
Bank of Oklahoma and Commercial Federal Bank are helping to finance the ventures, Perez said.
The mall, called The Executive Mall, will be renamed Plaza Las Americas. A second Las Americas market, covering about 7,000 square feet, is scheduled to open there in early 2005.
With another market, Perez will double his staff to about 50 people.
"I saw the potential this store has," he said of Las Americas.
The grocery side of the operation had been closed for almost six months when Perez bought the business. Though the previous owners were at first netting $85,000 a month in sales, "this month we'll probably do $160,000," he said.
Revenues have jumped because the market's food and general merchandise prices are now lower, there is a better mix of national and Hispanic products -- many from Mexico -- and customer service has been improved with an increased staff, Perez said.
"Based on my experience, I haven't seen anything like this."
More authentic Mexican dishes have been added at the restaurant, complementing a Tex-Mex menu that draws non-Hispanic diners all the way from downtown.
Yet Perez's interest in providing a taste of home to Spanish-speaking people is definitely on target.
Hispanics make up the largest ethnic segment in the United States, with nearly 40 million consumers and the buying power of more than $630 billion, a study by the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies shows.
Mexicans make up about 58 percent of all Latinos in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, and state census statistics show even more clearly Oklahoma's demographic shift.
Hispanics make up 5.2 percent of the state's population, an increase of 108 percent since 1990. Tulsa County has experienced a 181 per cent increase in its Hispanic population in the past 13 years, the census shows.
Mexicans make up 72 percent of all Oklahoma Hispanics, and Mexicans represent 75 percent of Tulsa's Hispanic population.
People such as Perez are making Tulsa more inviting and strengthening the city's economy, said Fred Ramos, director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
"That's good that we have people coming here and investing in Tulsa," he said.
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