By Bridgett Harris
Running a successful, family-owned grocery store isn’t easy in an industry dominated by big-box chains with large advertising budgets. To thrive, smaller grocers work hard to create a sense of community, provide personal service and offer products customized to the unique needs of their customers.
For two decades, Carniceria Leonela has embraced that formula for success, focusing on great customer service paired with fresh produce, baked goods, fresh meats and an enormous selection of Mexican and Latin American goods.
Owner Oscar Ornelas was born in Mexico and moved to the United States in search of work when he was 19 years old. He started out living in California but over time, he decided the state was too crowded and the traffic too awful to settle there. When a friend in Colorado Springs suggested he move to the Pikes Peak region, he packed up and headed east.
Ornelas said he always imagined himself running a business — it didn’t matter what kind, he just knew that being an entrepreneur was the path for him. He started out selling clothing accessories when he first moved to Colorado Springs. The idea for opening a carniceria was sparked by the lack of Hispanic grocery stores in the city.
“There were not really many Hispanic products or a grocery store because Colorado Springs was really small,” Ornelas said. “It was hard to find the products I wanted to use to cook. I would go all the way to Denver.”
Specialty cuts of meat, cheeses, candies and desserts were among the items Ornelas struggled to find. So he decided to launch his first grocery store, opening in a shopping center on South Academy Boulevard. It was so popular that Ornelas’ customers’ cars frequently filled the parking lot, and soon he needed to move to a different space. After three years in that location, he moved his shop to its present location on Pikes Peak Avenue. Oscar’s daughter, Leonela Ornelas, says her father started the new shop from scratch. “It was basically just a lot,” she recalled.
That was 18 years ago. Today, Carniceria Leonela is a thriving grocery store well known for its extensive meat counter, wide variety of Hispanic products and small, on-premises restaurant serving authentic Mexican cuisine.
More grocers are operating in the store’s niche these days, but Carniceria Leonela still does brisk business. Ornelas says what sets the store apart from competitors is its meat department and the quality of the meats offered.
Stretching nearly the entire length of the store, the bright lights of the recently renovated cases shine down on 60 different cuts of beef, pork, poultry and seafood.
“I would call it very special because our cuts are very different compared to stores like Walmart and King Soopers,” Leonela said.
Flap meats for grilling are the most popular, but Carniceria Leonela also carries more unique cuts like tongue and ox tail, as well as menudo (a traditional Mexican soup made with tripe). Ornelas makes his own marinades for things like fajitas, which his daughter said keeps customers keep coming back. The variety of products is also a draw, she said.
“Yes, we are more focused on the Latin American side, but we also have products of the Caribbean — Central and South America,” Leonela said.
The restaurant is also a customer favorite. Oscar and Leonela say it is some of the most authentic food you can find in the city, serving up hearty plates of chile rellenos, carne asada, mole, smothered burritos, enchiladas, chilaquiles and steaming bowls of menudo and caldo de res. The recipes come from Mexico and the restaurant’s kitchen manager. Customers can also enjoy horchata and Mexican sodas as well as frozen treats.
“My dad tries to keep it very authentic,” said Leonela. “I would think that if you went to Mexico, you would receive similar meals.”
Leonela plays a variety of roles in the carniceria — she says she hopes to take over for her father when he decides he’s ready to retire. Her two aunts, Ana and Elba Ornelas, and her uncle, Carlos Ornelas, also work in the shop, making it a truly family-run, locally owned business. In total, the store employs more than 50 people, the majority of whom work the carniceria’s meat counter.
“My dad really focuses on the service and the speed,” Leonela said. “We try to be attentive on our customers and just do it quick and easy.”
Many of the customers see Carniceria Leonela as more than just a business.
Community members have commented that the store operates as a hub for the close-knit Hispanic community, providing friends and family with a place to chat as they pick up baked goods and fresh produce or grab a hot meal from the restaurant. With its wire transfer and telegram services, it also connects people in the United States to far-flung family.
“I think the way we treat our customers is important,” said Ornelas. “Our motto is, ‘We’re not No. 1 — you are.’”