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El Burrito Mercado, the restaurant, grocery and deli mainstay of St. Paul's West Side, was started by Tomas and Maria Silva in 1979 in a space measuring just 800 square feet.

Expanded and diversified over the years to include imported housewares, a full-service grocery store, a sit-down restaurant, catering and a food truck, El Burrito since 2015 has been owned and operated by sisters Milissa and Suzanne Silva and Suzanne's daughter, Analita. Tomas Silva Jr., Suzanne and Milissa's brother, runs the food truck operation.

Eye On St. Paul recently sat down with CEO Milissa Silva to talk about this iconic West Side business and the role it plays in St. Paul's Mexican American community. This interview was edited for length.

Q: You said your parents wanted to offer a lot of services in one space. Why was that important?

A: Well, in Mexico, it's the convenience. Everybody can be together and do all your shopping there at one time. In Mexico, the shopping is a little fresher and a little more regularly. Obviously, [here] it's a little more modernized. But that's the concept they wanted to have here — you'd come in and have a little experience and find a little bit of everything you need.

Q: Why was it important to emulate what people had in Mexico?

A: It started out as a need or a craving for food from home. For my parents, it was not finding the ingredients for the food that they wanted. And they were encouraged by people in the community, so they did that. As the community has grown and the Latino business community has grown, what still distinguishes El Burrito is we still very much drive for people to have an experience. To keep it authentic and traditional.

Q: Even people who aren't from Latin America seem to crave that authenticity. Why?

A: I think with travel, people have been exposed to more. Their expectations and their cravings are changing a little bit. And they're learning the difference between Tex-Mex and fast food and traditional, scratch-made food.

For us, the big thing was for people to find the flavors that they love. It was a safe haven, where they could speak Spanish and hear the music. Especially back in the day when there weren't so many [options]. Growing up as a first-generation Latina, for me it was a way to connect with people of different cultures and to bring people together.

Q: Your parents started it. Who is involved now?

A: Well, there's three of us. The mercado is owned by my sister, myself and my niece. My brother owns the concessions, so he does the food truck and goes to festivals and events. Having that flexibility for us is good.

Q: What is the West Side to you?

A: The West Side's home. There was the Romo block, right across the field, where there are four or five families and they're all related.

And after school, we either walked over there or we walked to Burrito. Most of the time, we had to check in with my mom or dad first. And my mom would cook our meals after school. We did our homework in the basement. And then we were free to roam the West Side [laughs].

It's a village. I had so many neat people that were mentors for me and have been like adopted moms. And I know my parents were that for a lot of kids on the West Side. If my parents caught them stealing, they'd say, "If you're hungry, we'll feed you." And if they were a little older, they would put them to work. I still have customers who come in and say, "Your mom and dad changed my life." That's what the West Side is.

Q: How do you keep those community connections going?

A: The West Side definitely has a different demographic and has changed. I love that it's still a very strong and very colorful, diverse community. But there are a lot of different challenges as well. I find that I get really overwhelmed when I try to take on all those challenges. And so, I focus on what we can do to serve our community and when they come to us with a need, we try to help fill a gap there.

Q: How many employees do you have?

A: 90.

Q: Are they all full-time?

A: Most of them are part-time. We have a team of 12 managers, they are all full-time. Thank God for them, a very awesome, loyal team of managers. Without them, we could not do this.

Q: What are your parents up to?

A: My dad, I'm sure, was probably here this morning or he'll be around. He's still very hands-on. He's 78. Very active. Very healthy. They live in Inver Grove Heights, have a beautiful garden that they spend their time in in the summer.

Q: What's next for El Burrito Mercado?

A: It depends on this next generation. We're all in different places. I'm nearing retirement. My sister has teenagers in high school. And then Analita is just starting her family. We're all in different phases in life. So I don't know. For me, this is it. People, say, "Open one here or open one there." And we tried that. And they didn't work out for different reasons. But the mothership remains.