Thirty-five years ago, Aurora Ochoa was a wife and stay-at-home mother who wanted to do something while her husband was out working. She started making her own chorizo in their garage and gave it away to friends and family. Back then, she hand-cranked single meters of meat at a time with the help of her children (and eventually grandchildren). Up to 500 pounds per week was produced.
Jump to present day: 2,500 pounds per week, or 10,000 pounds of meat per month, are sold at Ochoa's Chorizo's current location off Warner Avenue in Santa Ana. It sells even more over Super Bowl weekend. I had the pleasure of spending time with Aurora's son Salvador (named after her husband) and granddaughter Vanessa to discuss the family business.
Salvador's primary job is as a real-estate agent, but on early Saturday mornings, one will find him continuing the family tradition. The 10 people behind Ochoa's Chorizo are all related, and both Salvador's family and his parents live in close proximity of the store. So close, in fact, that during the week, he could manage work and home by driving up and down Warner alone. I miss meeting Aurora and Salvador Sr. because they are at church, but the team present is focused on its tasks.
Salvador walks me through the process, beginning with the blend of spices. There are chiles, salt, cloves, sesame seed, garlic, pepper and all-spice. These high-quality ingredients are measured and mixed in large batches the day before by his father. When I inquire as to why a 78-year-old man feels the need to work, Salvador responds, “They work, or they would die.” Past health complications made things difficult for Salvador Sr., but contributing to the process is what he lives for.
Step two of this labor-intensive process is blending the flavors into the 140-pound batches of pork provided by a Vietnamese grocery in Garden Grove. This begins as early as six in the morning to have the product ready and the store back in order by 1 in the afternoon. Next is “the machine” where the meat is guided to the casing and formed into a snake-like creature to be measured and cut. Finally, fans speed up a drying process of around two hours. Before it can be placed on wax paper and into the refrigerator, customers are ready with cash in hand to pick up their next meal. It's one efficient operation that they have mastered enough to open their second store in National City.
The four flavors sold at Ochoa's Chorizo are mild, spicy, chicken and green. While most chorizo is of a red hue, green is a result of jalapenos and green chiles mixed in. A soy version is available if you request an order in advance. The milder version was in response to parents trying to introduce the taste of chorizo to their children. This also led to the option of selling not only by the meter, but by the half-meter as well. By doing so, it allowed the customer more freedom to order based on the preferences of their households. This is a classic example of how a business responds and evolves based on the needs of its audience.
Even though it does not have a website, and I witnessed only a trickle of business come through the door, Vanessa says sales are good. She prefers the light-but-consistent flow of foot traffic as opposed to lines out the door. Regulars place their orders as easily as I request Starbucks: by quantity, size and flavor. She mentions Yelp as a reason for Ochoa's Chorizo's growing fan base. Currently, it supplies to a few local restaurants such as Super Anojitos and Tacos Mexico, as well as a number of loncheras. The long-term goal is to be carried in supermarkets—until the time comes when it needs to expand again, daily operations remain in the former upholstery building once owned by Vanessa's cousin's father-in-law. Aurora even makes her own flavorful beef jerky, also sold out of the shop.
Vanessa, a sociology major at Golden West College, shares memories of growing up with her cousins, rotating turns manning the hand crank until her arm was sore. There's a humorous anecdote about the time her grandmother's feet were tired and she wanted to take off her shoes, the only problem being it was a Saturday, a chorizo-making day (the other day being Tuesday). Walking barefoot around rows of chorizo was not an option. Her makeshift solution was to slip paper bags over her feet and secure them with rubber bands. Problem solved!
Japanese hot chiles can be found inside the spicy chorizo, while California ones keep the mild flavor cool. Folks seem to love the spicy, though—it outsells mild 2 to 1. At $7 per meter, you can afford to try both. “It's the best,” Salvador says with a smile. If you're lucky, maybe he'll have some of his rare “El Scorcho” chorizo available for purchase.
Thanks to Griffin Eats OC for suggesting Ochoa's Chorizo.
Ochoa's Chorizo, 220 W. Warner Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 850-0052. Cash only.