OCEAN CITY - For folks who like to quench their thirst with a bottle of Jarritos soda, snack on tamarind-flavored candy or add sliced cactus to their salads, a small market on West Avenue is a rare find - at least in this seaside resort.
Azul Coast International Market, which sells primarily Mexican products, along with foods used in Asian and Italian cooking, is a leader in bringing ethnic brands to Ocean City.
Such a store would not be out of place in cities such as Vineland or Atlantic City, but its resilience in tourist-rich Ocean City is also a testament to the growth of Hispanic-owned businesses in small communities across the United States.
"It's a dream," Yliana Cruz said of opening Azul six years ago. "All day, all night, you work to make sure everything is fine."
And she's still here, trying to cater to not only Hispanic immigrants and their families, but Americans who might have visited Mexico and want to reminisce through food.
"People like this," Cruz said, pointing to a brand of hot chocolate popular in Mexico.
Owning a business was new for the 39-year-old. She came to the area from Mexico City about 10 years ago to join friends. She liked Ocean City so much - the small-town beach scene was a change from the metropolitan sprawl of Mexico City, she said - that she stayed. She found work as a secretary and waitress. But as she saved money and built up her credit, she said, owning her own store was possible.
Her little market soon consumed her life, she said. Even on vacations back to Mexico, she worried about orders and payments. Early on, another shop owner in Ocean City stopped by: "He said, ‘I just want to congratulate you on getting your own jail,'" Cruz recalled.
Other ethnic food markets have come and gone in Ocean City.
John Capalbo, the general manager of the Ocean Front Motel, finally opened his Ocean City International Food Store on Eighth Street in May 2009. But it shut three months later.
It seemed like a good idea a few years ago, he said, wanting the store to cater mainly to Bulgarian and other Eastern European workers in the summer and Hispanics the rest of the year.
"Last year, there wasn't that many Bulgarians, and even the kids who were here didn't have money," Capalbo said. "My timing was bad."
A year's rent of $10,000 was too much for Capalbo's meager sales.
"Even if I didn't make any money, I hoped I could at least break even," he said. "But I was going deeper, deeper in debt."
Two doors down from his vacant store is La Autentica, a Mexican grocery that opened this month. Owner Nelzon Ceron said the store is needed because of the growth in the Hispanic population on the island.
A decade ago, Hispanics numbered only 306, or about 2 percent of Ocean City's entire population, according to the 2000 Census. Ceron estimates the number is now at about 1,500.
"This grocery is something closer for them," said Ceron, 33, of Pleasantville.
The store is stocked with Mexican goods from producers and wholesalers in northern New Jersey. It also carries meats and cheeses. While Hispanics can go to the local supermarket, having a grocery that understands their preferences is important, Ceron said.
"They want the Mexican style," he said of the meats. "The American cuts are too big. Especially on the steaks."
At Azul, owner Cruz plans to introduce an organic line of vegetables and canned goods, she said, to compliment the serrano peppers, jalapenos, avocados and tomatillos she already sells.
Part of her wouldn't mind opening another business, perhaps focusing on Mexican crafts. But she's not yet ready to shift her focus from Azul.
"I started with it - and when you own something, you want to make it as good as it can be," she said.