Back in 1984, when Mexican immigrant David Chavez first opened a taqueria and meat market in Redwood City, it was a three-person operation -- just Chavez and a pair of business partners.

"We were open 8 to 8, every day, with no days off," Chavez said. "I was making tacos on one end and cutting meat on the other, and would wash dishes after work."

He said it was like that for about a decade before the little operation grew into Chavez Supermarket, with branches opening in Menlo Park in 1993 and Tennyson Road in Hayward in 1996.

After a period of slow growth, things took off in the mid-2000s, and Friday brought a soft opening for the ninth Chavez Supermarket, on Mission Boulevard in Hayward at a site that was once a Smart & Final and more recently a discount outlet.

"Hayward has always been a real successful location, and we saw a great opportunity at this site," said Beto Chavez, the founder's son and general manager.

In addition to the two Hayward sites, the regional chain now has two branches in Redwood City, three in San Jose, and one each in Menlo Park and Sunnyvale. All told, the operation employs 550 people.

Beto Chavez said the climate is ripe for ethnic markets, and Hayward is particularly well-suited. According to 2010 Census figures, the Tennyson Road Chavez Supermarket borders a collection of tracts that are the most diverse in California, while Hayward ranks as the second-most diverse city in the state and Latinos make up the largest ethnic group in the city.

While Beto Chavez sees a bright future for Latino-flavored markets, he added that Asian groceries are also proliferating, and he's been seeing more stores specializing in Indian fare.

He was quick to point out that his supermarket supplies the staple edible sundries people expect to find at any large grocer, they just have a focus on bringing the specialty goods that might not be at big-name markets.

A row of canned food has eight feet devoted to beans, another eight to jalapeños and four to hominy.

"Most supermarkets have 16 feet for Latino food, total," Beto Chavez said. He said his market breaks it down into subcategories, with an area specific for Central and South American goods sourced out of El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala and Peru, among other nations.

"People have preferences, and there's a large variety," he said. "You can buy American corn meal, but it won't be the same. There's a lot of nostalgic effect, and when people see they can get a certain product for a regional dish, they get excited."

The site at 24601 Mission Blvd. near Carlos Lee Boulevard has been spruced up inside and out, with new flooring and fixtures and an attractive facade.

Beto Chavez said they bought the property for $2.1 million and invested another $2 million in upgrades.

David Rizk, developmental services director for Hayward, said the enhancements mesh well with ongoing street improvements along the Mission corridor.

"While the roadwork is an inconvenience now, it's going to be a positive asset in the end, and I hope it encourages other property owners to invest in improvements," he said.