Jesus Mendez and Estevan Garcia look over produce at Mi Tierra. Photos: Frances Dinkelspiel.

It was 10 am in the morning of February 17th and Jesus Mendez was just returning from the bank when he felt someone press the cold nub of a pistol into his back.

“Give me the money,” a second man said as he stepped in front of Mendez and leveled another gun at him.

Mendez, 48, the owner of Mi Tierra Foods on San Pablo Avenue and Addison, handed over the brown duffle bag containing the $30,000 in cash he had just withdrawn to run his store’s check cashing operation. The two assailants grabbed the bag and fled.

“It all happened so quickly,” Mendez said Tuesday sitting in the back office of his store. “It was very suspicious the way it happened. I went to the bank, came back, and as soon as I got out of my truck they came out of nowhere. How did they know I had so much money? Were they watching me?  Was it someone who came and cashed checks?”

No arrests have been made, according to Sgt. Mary Kusmiss of the Berkeley Police Department.

Mendez is disturbed that the brazen robbery may have been an inside job. The theft has prompted him to make extensive changes to his security system and the method he uses to transport money from the bank.

He has also had to scale back, at least temporarily, the check cashing business he runs from a corner of the store. Insurance only covered a small part of his loss and Mi Tierra has had to absorb the rest of the cost. The check-cashing operation has never served as a major money-making proposition, he says. Mendez only charges $3 to $4 for each check cashed and to wire funds abroad. He does it mostly as a service to his customers, many of whom don’t have bank accounts but routinely send funds to their families in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

The robbery has depleted Mendez’s cash reserves so he can no longer cash large checks. “We are no longer accepting new check cashing customers at this time,” reads a new sign hanging by the check-cashing window

Produce section at Mi Tierra Foods.

But Mendez has vowed not to let the violence affect his commitment to the community. From the time Mi Tierra opened 10 years ago, it has drawn a loyal following. The store, which has more than 40 mostly positive reviews on Yelp, provides a wide array of meats, cheeses, Latin American products, and fresh produce. The store also bakes its own bread and pastries, makes chicken, pork and vegetable tamales, and squeezes fresh juices such as the “Vampire,” a concoction of beet, celery, carrot, orange and pineapple juice.

Bread and pastries at Mi Tierra.

Mendez and his wife Elizabeth have always regarded their role as more than mere shopkeepers. They regularly support local schools like Rosa Parks Elementary, Willard Middle School and Berkeley High, and they plan to continue to do so, despite the economic hardship.

“I can’t remember telling any group we cannot help, whether it be a case of soda, a bag of oranges, something from the deli or a gift certificate,” said Mendez. “Obviously this was a bad experience but it will not change the way we think about the community.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...