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Community mourns El Rey grocery store co-founder

Posted at 8:37 PM, Sep 09, 2019

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee is in mourning after one of the founders of a city staple passed away Sunday at 76-years-old. He leaves behind a legacy that forever changed Hispanic culture in the city.

Ernesto Villarreal Sr. remembers his brother, Armando as an inventor and engineer with a mind set to succeed.

In 1978, this personality is what helped the two of them along with their brother, Beto, to found a large Hispanic grocery store called El Rey.

“If it wasn’t for him, probably El Rey would never exist," Ernesto Sr. said. “All three we started together, that was the main thing. Armando was a creator, Beto was very savvy in the business and I was the worker.”

Each contributed in their own way.

“He used to like working with his hands,” Ernesto Sr. said.

For Armando, it came in the form of starting the first and only corn tortilla factory in the state.

“They didn’t have the proper machinery, but they invented their own machines, their own way of making the product, their own seasonings,” his nephew, Ernesto Jr. said.

Ernesto Jr. said it was this desire to problem-solve and constantly improve that benefited El Rey in the years to come.

“Just like a head coach motivates the players, just being around him motivated everyone to want to do their best,” Ernesto Jr. said.

It remained the case when Armando left the company after a few years to launch other businesses in Texas and Mexico. His presence was always there, helping the business move forward as they grew from one store to four.

“He felt like this was one of his babies, so he always wanted to make sure things are going good and continue to progress to get bigger,” Ernesto Jr. said.

Now the Villarreals hope to keep Armando’s legacy alive.

“I can hear him in my head saying, ‘Okay, this is a good idea, this is a good idea. Let’s try to do this,’ or every single day I come to work, 'Okay, how can I be more efficient,'” Ernesto Jr. said.

“He’s always going to be on our minds. Everything we do reminds us about him,” Ernesto Sr. said.