The reactions are often the same when first-timers walk into La Casa Latina grocery in south Augusta.
It’s a place where food can transport a person to another country or to a memory from their mother’s kitchen.
“Ohhhhh, you have my soda, you have my juice, you have my crackers!” they yell, owner Franklin Carroz said. “Sometimes they’re taken to the time when they were a kid. They say ‘Oh, every day my mother gave me that cookie or coffee after school. I haven’t seen this in years.’ ”
Customers have been able to buy Latin food at La Casa Latina in Augusta for about 20 years, but their options changed when Carroz took over the business at 2310 Lumpkin Road in 2011. Carroz changed the largely Mexican focus the store had and brought in foods from all over Latin America.
Now the shelves are stocked with coffee from Puerto Rico, juice from Panama, spices from Venezuela and a popular Mexican pig tail.
Because tastes change across country lines, La Casa offers about seven different brands of flour. Carroz said whether customers choose Goya, Maseca or Amapula to make dough for empanadas or tortillas depends on their home country.
“We had the idea that we wanted to make a business for all the Spanish countries, not put all of our focus on one place,” Carroz said.
Carroz was born in Venezuela and went to college there to study business administration. He owned a hardware store for years, but as he watched his two children grow up, he began to realize he wanted change.
Unlike the opportunities he had before President Hugo Chavez took office in 1999, Carroz feared his children would not have the same chances for their college and careers.
Carroz, his wife Maria Elena Diaz and family moved to Atlanta in 2005 and later relocated to Miami, where they worked in wholesale food distribution. They moved to Augusta in 2010, where some family members had lived as well.
Carroz bought La Casa in 2011 and started making changes. He said with Augusta’s proximity to Fort Gordon and Atlanta, there is a large Hispanic population that is often overlooked.
According to the U.S. Census, Richmond County residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino grew from 5,447 in 2000 to 8,053 in 2010.
Carroz tried to accommodate them by offering calling cards and wire money transfers along with the yams, coconut cakes, seasonings and plantains that fill his store.
Alexander Ramos said he stops by La Casa about every three weeks to stock up on Puerto Rican spices and seasonings he can’t find anywhere else in Augusta.
On Thursday, he bought plantains and Sazon Goya seasoning to make pork shoulder with capers and garlic for friends visiting from Nevada for the Masters Tournament.
“It’s nice to be able to come here and see the things I grew up with as a kid,” said Ramos, the supervisor of anoscopy services for Trinity Hospital of Augusta. “I even buy boxes of (seasoning) for my friends at the hospital because I tell them they have to taste it.”
To meet the growing need for international options, Carroz and his wife opened a sister store in Grovetown in January called Latino’s Market. The dream is to open a full-scale grocery with a deli and pharmacy one day.
Carroz said that business would be more centrally located, perhaps on Wrightsboro Road near Augusta Mall, to draw in customers outside of the Hispanic origins to taste foods from all over.
“I think this city is growing, and that’s why we love it here,” Carroz said. “My life and my family changed when we came here, and God has given us this opportunity.”