Stuffed with foodstuffs

By Joe Torok

Small Latin grocery-deli carries on tradition

Like a piñata ready to burst, Handy’s Mexican Market and Deli is stuffed so full it feels like the little shop might shower groceries and freshly made tacos all over Willow Street during an afternoon rush.

Owner Daniel Pesina has run the 39-year-old neighborhood convenience store/deli for nearly two years now. “We’ve changed a few things,” Pesina said. “We added merchandise and we’ve found bigger distributors with better costs for us.”

Pesina and family members bought the store from Ken Handy, who started in 1970. It was the first Mexican specialty market in Lansing.

Pesina wants keep the store’s legacy intact. “There’s always that saying,” he said. “If it’s not broke, let’s not fix it.” Over three decades, Handy’s became known as a small, family store, a great place for friendly conversation as well as homemade pork rinds. The staff will even carry groceries to your car.

Two skinny aisles are filled with an array of Latin foodstuffs, from fresh fruit and vegetables to boxed and frozen meals. Traditional spices, teas and herbs line one wall. Homemade salsa is a popular item out of the cooler. Various packs of tortilla shells and chorizo sausage from family owned businesses are also stacked in the cooler. Most are from the Detroit area, where Pesina shops for many of his products.

Handy’s provides its immediate neighborhood just west of Old Town, as well as the city and beyond, with Latin inspired fare. Simple Mexican cuisine dominates the grill, but the products on the shelves range far beyond that. Most are more accurately described as Caribbean in nature: Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican. Goya brand products are everywhere.

Behind the counter at the front corner of the store, beef sizzles and tortillas warm as a short-order cook assembles snacks and lunches for hungry customers. The beef tacos ($1.59 each) are stuffed full of lettuce, cheese, tomatoes and hot (very hot) or mild salsa. Salty tortilla chips ($4.19), cooked fresh on site daily, are thick and crunchy, the perfect vessel for flavorful salsa ($2.99) made with fresh cilantro. Bags of freshly made pork rinds tempt with a savory crunch.

The merchandise goes beyond groceries. There is traditional cookware, religious and cultural figurines, piñatas — even batteries and phone cards.

And there’s a soda surprise in the cooler. Like any other convenience store, Handy’s offers both Coke and Pepsi products, but here both come in glass, via Mexico. From the burst of fizz after the snap of the cap to the smooth, chilled glass against the hand, soda somehow tastes better when it’s enjoyed from a glass bottle.

Pesina has also developed contacts made in the food service industry into a side business as a distributor. “I became that middle man that used to do it for us,” he said.

So he not only stocks his own shelves, but also supplies area stores and restaurants with items found in his extensive travels throughout the state. He especially enjoys prowling in southeast Michigan, where a plethora of little shops and delis churn out fabulous products like traditional sausages, homemade tortillas and an assortment of baked goods.

Running a small business has been straining at times for Pesina. This summer, Handy’s was at Ground Zero of the decades-long Combined Sewer Overflow project. With Willow Street torn to pieces, business at Handy’s plunged by 50 percent, then by 65 percent. On one of the worst days, a utility truck knocked over a phone line, knocking out EBT and credit card machines for nine hours. Now the worst is over, the road is smooth and Handy’s is rolling at full speed again.

Handy’s Mexican Market and Deli. 424 W. Willow St., Lansing. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. (517) 482-1156.