From grocery bagger to CEO: How Rancho Markets founder grew a chain from scratch

Being a CEO hasn’t kept Eli Madrigal from having a hand in even the smallest part of her business. Whether it’s sampling a new ice cream flavor, meeting with vendors, straightening a price sign on a box of produce, or organizing the logistics of a new store — the Rancho Markets CEO and founder does it all.

“I am 100% involved in all the decisions of the stores, even when I shouldn’t be that involved,” she said. “For me it is not work; it is my passion.”

At the chain’s newest location — 580 S. State in Clearfield — Madrigal certainly has her hands full. The store has been open since Sept. 10 and is already making a splash. The restaurant portion of the store has been so popular, in fact, that it is closed until Madrigal can hire more people to staff it.

Despite its growing success, the chain is still very much a family-run business. Madrigal says she is blessed to have not only her husband and business partner by her side, but also her son, stepdaughter, aunt, sister and brother-in-law in Salt Lake City.

The name Rancho Markets itself even has a family tie. It reflects Madrigal’s Mexican roots as well as her fond memories of visiting her grandfather’s ranch as a child.

Eli Madrigal, founder and CEO of Rancho Markets, laughs with her 80-year-old employee Vic Harwood at Rancho Market in Clearfield on Tuesday, Sept.  13.

Eli Madrigal, founder and CEO of Rancho Markets, laughs with her 80-year-old employee Vic Harwood at Rancho Market in Clearfield on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Madrigal grew up in Mexicali, Baja California, along the US-Mexican border. She undertook her first entrepreneurial pursuit at about 7 years old, collecting and recycling bottles. The profit went to buying Madrigal, her mother and two siblings an ice cream every weekend.

When she moved to California at 15, she made a promise to herself that she would work hard and not take moving to the US for granted. That promise translated to her working at a grocery store. She went from picking up shopping carts and bagging groceries to supervisor within three years.

After high school, Madrigal moved back to the border, got married and had a son. The young couple moved to Las Vegas but were divorced soon after. As a single mother, Madrigal said she turned to the only thing she knew to put food on the table for her son: the grocery industry.

She worked in a Las Vegas grocery store for 11 years. Although she worked her way up the chain of command during that time, she realized that, as an employee, she’d always be following someone else’s instructions instead of making decisions of her own.

“I didn’t want to be an employee anymore; I wanted to be an entrepreneur.” Madrigal said. “In my childhood, when I was living in Mexico I knew we were poor. We were middle, lower class. I always had that passion for excellence, and I always dreamed to be the head not the tail.”

Eli Madrigal, founder and CEO of Rancho Markets, holds manzano peppers as she talks about her store's produce at Rancho Market in Clearfield on Tuesday, Sept.  13.

Eli Madrigal, founder and CEO of Rancho Markets, holds manzano peppers as she talks about her store’s produce at Rancho Market in Clearfield on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

She planned on opening a small carnicería, a butcher shop, in Texas or Arizona, but a friend urged her to go to Salt Lake City instead. She arrived in the city in January 2006. The snow-covered mountains were a huge contrast from the deserts she had lived in all her life, but she fell in love.

“I called my mom on the freeway and said, ‘Mom, prepare the luggage, we’re moving,'” she said. “‘Salt Lake City is the place.'”

With a $170,000 loan from two friends, Madrigal opened the first Rancho Markets location at 190 E. 3300 South in South Salt Lake in June 2006. She drew the plans for the store herself with a pen and ruler while at City Hall.

Seven months later she opened her second location after getting a loan from the federal Small Business Administration. By December 2007, she already had a third location. Opening a fourth location in Provo required an 80-mile round-trip drive — sometimes twice a day — to check in on the store, but Madrigal didn’t shy away from the challenge.

“I was working seven days a week and 14 to 15 hours a day,” she said, adding that it was difficult to make sacrifices with her family. “It was a whole experience and I was so passionate.”

Eli Madrigal, founder and CEO of Rancho Markets, poses at Rancho Market in Clearfield on Tuesday, Sept.  13.

Eli Madrigal, founder and CEO of Rancho Markets, poses at Rancho Market in Clearfield on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Long hours wouldn’t be the only challenge Madrigal faced. She said it was also difficult to lead in a male-dominated industry. Her personal experience, however, has motivated her to ensure that about 60% of her management-level employees are women.

“I’m going to make a difference,” she said. “I do hire men, but I also like to give the opportunity to women to be successful.”

The hard work has paid off. Madrigal said she’s had multiple companies try to buy her out, but she has rejected each offer. For her, the stores are about more than just making a profit.

“We care about our community around us. We are not here to make a profit, we are here to serve our community,” she said. “I cannot compete with larger chains — some of them they have much better deals than we do — but having the opportunity to sell to our community, wherever we are, the lowest we can, and helping them to put food on their tables is the now rewarding thing for us.”

That community focus is apparent in the items stocked at each store — many of which won’t be found on the shelves at larger chains. Each store is a little different, based on requests from the local clientele. For example, the Rancho Market on 898 E. 3300 South in South Salt Lake has a lot of Middle Eastern items in addition to the chain’s usual Latin American fare. Usually, if a store gets a request for an item three times, Rancho Markets will find a way to stock it.

Apples at Rancho Market in Clearfield on Tuesday, Sept.  13.

Apples at Rancho Market in Clearfield on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“We specialize in having the items that other people don’t carry,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard even for us to find them.”

Madrigal added that it’s also been rewarding to provide better opportunities for her employees and their families, and said it is her employees that she is the most proud of.

As for the future?

“I wish I could be in more cities, but it’s so hard right now to find buildings than what it was in years before,” Madrigal said. “My mind is now where’s the next one? I have to make the decision on where’s the next one.”

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