Hard work, determination, and salsa

(Corey Frost | Grand Central Magazine)

You can hear his laugh from aisle nine. For many of the locals, a trip to Hansen’s Foods is just one aspect of everyday life in the quaint village of Suttons Bay, Mich. For Miguel Albarran, however, the local grocery store represents far more than another errand on a never-ending to-do list. It houses a steady job, consistent belly laughs and the best salsa in town.

The 57-year-old is among the first to arrive at the store in order to prepare for its 8 a.m. opening. His day begins by placing a fresh apron around his neck and securing it with a neatly tied bow. Its chalk-white color stands out against his cinnamon skin. He then shuffles into the deli to prepare whole chickens for the rotisserie oven.

It’s not the chicken, though, that makes him popular among the store’s frequent customers. Miguel is better known for his authentic Mexican lunch specials, various salsas and hearty laughs that remedy even the dreariest days.

On this day, he is busy preparing his popular mango-papaya salsa. With the skill of an artist, he carefully removes the skins from the pineapple, mangos and papaya, determined to waste as little usable product as possible. He then slices each thin enough to fit in the hand operated dicing machine. However, the majority of his life was not always this routine.

Miguel grew up in Guerrero, Mexico where he attended school and worked as much as possible to help support his family. During this time, he met his wife Maria, and together they had their oldest daughter Dalila. Unfortunately, the lack of consistent work began to take its toll, and at the age of 22, Miguel and his family moved to Los Angeles, where they spent the next 12 years.

“I had to find a steady job,” Miguel says, pushing the freshly diced fruit into a large, metallic bowl on the counter. He then places a few Serrano peppers and a red onion on the cutting board in front of him. “We decided moving to the US was our best choice.”

While in California, Maria gave birth to their only son Daniel and their youngest daughter Maria-Luisá. Once again though, consistent work became an issue, and the family moved back to Guerrero.

Setting down his utensils, he moves to the back of the store, puts on his jacket and steps out into the afternoon sun. This is one of the few, short breaks he takes to enjoy one of the Marlboro cigarettes he keeps securely in his pocket. The speckles of gray in his otherwise jet black hair and mustache glimmer in the light as he sparks the end of his cigarette.

“All the moving was hard, but we had to make the best of it,” he says as he takes a final drag and exhales the smoke into the cool Michigan air.

Back inside, Miguel ventures into the produce department, and only stops once he reaches the mist case. He inspects the bowl of cilantro as the case clicks on, coating the various produce with a thin blanket of water. Finally, as the flow of water subsides, he selects the bunch he deems fit for the cutting board.

He operates smoothly, first drying the leaves with a small rag to remove the excess water, then runs his sharp blade over the forest-green leaves. As he works, the aroma emitted by the fresh herb overpowers the smell of cooking chicken.

In 1999, at the age of 45, Miguel and his family made their final move to Suttons Bay. There he began working for Northern Michigan Fruit Co., packaging cherries and apples for delivery.  He held several other jobs as well, including housekeeping at Leelanau Sand Casino, painting auto parts, housekeeping at the Leelanau Memorial Health Center and various jobs at Hansen’s Foods.

“I was working 80-hour weeks with only two days off a month,” he says as he adds the cilantro he had just finished chopping to his bowl. “It was difficult, but I was able to make enough to buy us a house.”

At that, he swiftly moves back into the produce department, stopping to examine the citrus, and with the concentration of a chess champion, he hand selects the limes lucky enough to be included in his masterpiece.

Despite the countless obstacles and hardships he’s faced, Miguel’s outrageous sense of humor remains intact. He relishes the little things: sharing misguided advice and insisting he’s been busy all day making big pots of nothing. He’ll wow younger employees with made-up stories about his life in Cambodia and claim people owe him $2 whenever possible. He’s even known to share a raunchy joke or two, though he claims everyone else has the dirty mind.

“I laugh because I don’t want to turn old,” he says as a smile dances across his lips. “Inside, I’m only 28.”

Upon returning with the limes, he places one of his favorite albums in the CD player and takes a moment to showcase his Salsa moves, slowly turning circles as he sways his hips from side to side, completely in tune with the music. When the song ended, he giggled slightly before returning to his station and adding the finishing touches of salt and fresh squeezed lime juice to the bowl.

“When I left Mexico, I put lots of lard on my back, so now all the bad stuff just slides off,” he says as his mouth opens wide to reveal an enormous laugh.

Finally, he reaches for a large spoon and begins stirring all of the ingredients together. After a few minutes, employees from all departments gather to share a laugh with Miguel and sample the same product they had all tried hundreds of times before.

Their reactions remain as unchanged as the salsa itself. Miguel nods graciously as they express their approval and return to their respective departments.

Soon the deli empties out and Miguel gathers several half-pound containers and carefully begins filling each one. He measures by sight alone, starting with large scoops and topping each off with smaller, more calculated spoonfuls, making sure to create a variety of sizes to fit the needs of anyone visiting Hansen’s.

“I never stop making salsa,” he says with a grin as he seals the final container and carries the lot out onto the sales floor

Many customers and employees marvel at his ability to consistently make such a perfect product. However, it’s Miguel who knows his salsa can only be created through the perfect combination of ingredients, coupled with hard work, determination and proper attention to the finest details.

“It’s the best in town!” he exclaims as his laugh echoes throughout the store.