Jesus Mendez and Estevan Garcia look over produce at Mi Tierra. Photo by Frances Dinkelspiel
Jesus Mendez and Estevan Garcia look over produce at Mi Tierra. Photos: Frances Dinkelspiel.

It was 10 am in the morning of February 17th and Jesus Mendez was just returning from the bank when he felt someone press the cold nub of a pistol into his back.

“Give me the money,” a second man said as he stepped in front of Mendez and leveled another gun at him.

Mendez, 48, the owner of Mi Tierra Foods on San Pablo Avenue and Addison, handed over the brown duffle bag containing the $30,000 in cash he had just withdrawn to run his store’s check cashing operation. The two assailants grabbed the bag and fled.

“It all happened so quickly,” Mendez said Tuesday sitting in the back office of his store. “It was very suspicious the way it happened. I went to the bank, came back, and as soon as I got out of my truck they came out of nowhere. How did they know I had so much money? Were they watching me?  Was it someone who came and cashed checks?”

No arrests have been made, according to Sgt. Mary Kusmiss of the Berkeley Police Department.

Mendez is disturbed that the brazen robbery may have been an inside job. The theft has prompted him to make extensive changes to his security system and the method he uses to transport money from the bank.

He has also had to scale back, at least temporarily, the check cashing business he runs from a corner of the store. Insurance only covered a small part of his loss and Mi Tierra has had to absorb the rest of the cost. The check-cashing operation has never served as a major money-making proposition, he says. Mendez only charges $3 to $4 for each check cashed and to wire funds abroad. He does it mostly as a service to his customers, many of whom don’t have bank accounts but routinely send funds to their families in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

The robbery has depleted Mendez’s cash reserves so he can no longer cash large checks. “We are no longer accepting new check cashing customers at this time,” reads a new sign hanging by the check-cashing window

Produce section at Mi Tierra Foods.

But Mendez has vowed not to let the violence affect his commitment to the community. From the time Mi Tierra opened 10 years ago, it has drawn a loyal following. The store, which has more than 40 mostly positive reviews on Yelp, provides a wide array of meats, cheeses, Latin American products, and fresh produce. The store also bakes its own bread and pastries, makes chicken, pork and vegetable tamales, and squeezes fresh juices such as the “Vampire,” a concoction of beet, celery, carrot, orange and pineapple juice.

Bread and pastries at Mi Tierra.

Mendez and his wife Elizabeth have always regarded their role as more than mere shopkeepers. They regularly support local schools like Rosa Parks Elementary, Willard Middle School and Berkeley High, and they plan to continue to do so, despite the economic hardship.

“I can’t remember telling any group we cannot help, whether it be a case of soda, a bag of oranges, something from the deli or a gift certificate,” said Mendez. “Obviously this was a bad experience but it will not change the way we think about the community.”

Related:
Berkeley Bites: Ambrocio Hernandez, Mi Tierra Foods [07.02.10]

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel (co-founder) is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,...

Join the Conversation

14 Comments

  1. I agree with Alon Shalev.

    I am very proud of my community. We need to help and support this store that actually gives back to the community. It would be nice if the Berkeley Police Department would hang out around this neighborhood like they do in others. Having them around would make it so less crime would occur. Berkeley is a close-knit community. Go Berkeley.

  2. Let’s show support in a more effective way, give back to a local business that gives back. I rarely shop at Mi Tierra and then generally for specific items. This weekend I’ll buy my groceries there. A real community stands together.

  3. I love this place. When I moved here, I didnt even realize it was there. Thank goodness, I’d never want to live somewhere without a grocery store right around the corner!

    Note: theres also another Latino grocery on the same block that is better for some products, worse for others.

  4. tizzielish says: “Complaining about Cash Advance stores seems like a waste of energy. If people turn to Cash Advance stores to cash checks, it must be because they can’t just go to a bank to cash it. And if people can’t go the bank to cash a check, how do they convert what are, presumably, paychecks for wages earned into the cash they need?”

    The industry could, and should, be more heavily regulated so that they are not allowed to charge rates that essentially violate anti-usury laws. Cash Advance stores are predatory institutions that abuse the members of society who already have the least to begin with and bury them under mountains of insurmountable debt.

    Free, no-minimum checking accounts are a thing of the past. The biggest promoter of those was Washington Mutual, and now that they’ve been absorbed by Chase they have converted all those free checking accounts into accounts that have fees if you do not meet a minimum balance.

  5. Thanks TN. I know that new regulations might change this but I have a free checking account with no minimum balance. I have never paid for a checking account and I am low income these days. I have paid for bounced check fees but never paid just to have a checking account. If possible for me, I think anyone could.

    Being able to read English is a significant barrier. Having basic math skills might be another. And I understand that people with different cultural backgrounds have different attitudes about banks.

    I am glad there are ways for folks without bank accounts to cash checks. And I admire Mi Tierra for trying to fill that need.

    Succatash and Jeanne: I agree with you, Mi Tierra is a fine grocery store. I don’t go there much because I don’t live in the neighborhood and I don’t think to go but now that I am thinking about it. I could. It’s just one bus ride, as are the grocery stores I patronize now. Why not go there? Plus I like the Mexican products they carry. And they sure sound like good business people.

  6. Thanks for keeping going. Next time, contract with Brinks or other armoured carrier. They will safely deliver funds to your store safe and shoot those who try this kind of thing..

  7. I’m SO sorry to hear of the robbery, and admire the owners’ attitude.
    I live nearby and love Mi Tierra. Over the ten years I’ve ben shopping there it has grown and improved and clearly responds to the local community, both the Latino majority and others.
    (I was there today for organic chicken, interesting teas and spices, and 49¢ croissants.)
    It’s sad that such a check cashing operation is needed, but reflects on our society in ways many people don’t understand.

  8. Mi Tierra is a FANTASTIC grocery and butcher. It’s a complete throwback to a forgotten era. That store, more than any merchant, makes my neighborhood one I’m exceedingly proud of.

  9. tizzielish:

    There are many reasons other than lack of legal ID that keeps poor people from opening bank accounts.

    I know legal immigrants who’ve never had an account. They always deal in cash even to buy airline tickets to travel back and forth to their native lands.

    From speaking to them and from my own experiences, I surmise that some of the reasons for not having a bank account are:

    Checking accounts now have high monthly fees unless the balance is high;
    Based on their life experiences, they don’t trust banks to hold money;
    Understanding monthly statements requires literacy in English and a basic of understanding of banking terms and logic, whereas it isn’t clear that some of the immigrants are even literate in their native language.

    For many people it just seems simpler and safer to keep money in cash.

  10. I don’t understand why Mi Tierra’s customers don’t cash their checks at banks. Obviously there is a need for the service. It sounds like Mi Tierra has been doing something good and someone took advantage. This robbery does not just hurt the store but all the people who relied on this service.

    I am white, middle class. I don’t think I have ever cashed a check at a grocery store, unless I was writing my own check to buy groceries. This sounds like people cash their paychecks at the store, and they probably do so because they can’t just go to the bank that the check is drawn on and cash it there. Is that the situation? I am not, at all, anti-immigrants. I hope my comments don’t sound that way. I am sincerely wondering if it is hard for some categories of people to get paychecks cashed because, for whatever reason, they don’t have a personal checking account?

    Name Withheld says check cashing is abusive to the poorest in society. Where do the poorest in society get their checks cashed? Complaining about Cash Advance stores seems like a waste of energy. If people turn to Cash Advance stores to cash checks, it must be because they can’t just go to a bank to cash it. And if people can’t go the bank to cash a check, how do they convert what are, presumably, paychecks for wages earned into the cash they need?

    I guess there are segments of society without checking accounts. I’ve always had a checking account and I don’t understand why people don’t.

    I am glad, and grateful, that Mi Tierra provides this service to his customers. It sounds like a classic win-win. The store provides this service and, in exchange, the store gets the grocery business of the folks cashing checks.

  11. NOTE: Based on what I have heard it seems like the check cashing Mi Tierra does is fair. I am speaking more about the sorts of “Cash Advance” places that you find on so many street corners these days.

  12. Check cashing is abusive to the poorest members of society.

    While I appreciate & enjoy Mi Tierra as a grocery store, check cashing should be outlawed or severely regulated.

  13. I live near Mi Tierra and shop there often. They are a great asset to West Berkeley, and I really like the folks that work there.

    However, walking/driving around with $30k in cash without an armed guard or some other sort of security is just stupid. Too many hungry people in this world.