Sunday, January 7, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 7, 2001

Mexico offers goods, inspiration for Island restaurateur

Advertiser Staff

Pancho & Lefty’s Cantina & Restaurante may not look like a typical import store, but the owners travel to Mexico almost every year to buy uniforms for their servers, items for their gift shop and to pick up knowledge that helps them run their Kona business.

South of the border, it’s all about shopping until you drop from haggling: Checking out prices in one store, going to the next, comparing, finding street vendors, comparing and haggling, and on and on and on.

Fortunately for restaurant general manager Beverly Wigzell, her mother-in-law has shared a secret that cuts out several tiers of haggling: The cheapest prices in Puerto Vallarta are found at the beach.

Wigzell began her education in buying goods in Mexico during college, when she went to Tijuana with friends to buy $15 fake Guess jeans, bogus Rolex watches and to enjoy the lower drinking age. Those formative years gave her the knowledge that Mexico had a lot to offer at good prices.

These days, Wigzell still goes there — but now for business as well as R&R. After graduating from college, Wigzell joined her in-laws in running Pancho & Lefty’s and another restaurant on Maui. On their buying trips, the Wigzells head south of the border to check out shopping areas that cater to tourists to see what is new.

They usually see a wide range of prices for the same item. But after several trips, they have learned to head to the beach to find Joel, a reliable source and beach seller who peddles jewelry rugs, hats, boots and other items. Penny Wigzell has been buying from him for 10 years.

Beach sellers are the ticket to getting good deals. "Everyone knows everyone," Wigzell said. "So if you ask one of these beach sellers where to find an item you’re looking for, they can find it because of their network."

For example, Wigzell saw an Aztec calendar for $225 in one store. Down the street at another shop, the same item cost $175. Then she told Joel what she was looking for. She ended up with seven at $50 each.

Even though the beach vendors often offer cheaper prices than retailers, they still haggle. "They start out high because they expect you to bargain," Wigzell said. Now they’ve learned that a buddy system helps: One of the team admires something, but the other says they bought something similar for about half the price. The beach seller will usually cut his price quickly.

The constant negotiating can be draining, and Wigzell recommends importers do it in the morning while energy is high — after a few hours, you can be tempted to agree to any price.

Wigzell said she goes to Mexico to buy uniforms and small items for her gift shop, mainly jewelry, so her purchases fit in a couple of large suitcases. She packs the items herself or, if they are fragile, has the vendor pack them for her. With only a couple of suitcases full of goods, she doesn’t have to worry about going through customs.

Wigzell also finds that as she’s relaxing on her trip, the restaurants offer information and ideas for use in her own restaurant.

She pays attention to the customer service, wanting to recreate the same environment in her own establishment. And she soaks up ideas for new dishes.

"It gets your mind going on what you’d like to try," she said. A fish-and-crab burrito with cream sauce on a menu in Mexico might later translate into a similar concoction in her restaurant using fresh-caught fish and hollandaise sauce.

"You won’t get the same flavor," she acknowledges. "It’s different ingredients, different cheeses." But the combination is straight from Old Mexico.

Correction: Pancho & Lefty’s Cantina & Restaurante is in Kona on the Big Island. Information was incorrect in a previous version of this story.

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