Why did you start the Mercado?
Something you see in most great cities around the globe are these central market districts or public markets. We spent a lot of time in a town in Mexico that has a wonderful market in this giant, gorgeous shed building. There are probably 50 little businesses in these teeny little stalls that sell almost everything—anything that comes from the region.
When we created the Mercado, the idea was to create a sense of place. A place that you could go, that you felt like you knew where you were. It felt good to be here because it was beautiful and vibrant, because it was local. I think people intuitively can feel it. Maybe they don’t recognize all the reasons it feels good to be in one place instead of another, but it doesn’t feel good to be in a place that feels fake. We love this building because people always assume it’s really old and that we renovated it.
The city had all this vacant land, right next to downtown, which is pretty rare. My dad and my brother saw the RFP [request for proposals] that the city put out to develop this land. We felt pretty dedicated to the idea that we could create a place that was worthy of Tucson that represented the style of the old barrio that had been torn down. Growing up in Phoenix, we really had no connection to Mexico, other than eating in Mexican restaurants. But you come walk in Barrio Viejo, you can feel—oh right, we’re next to Mexico. We wanted to bring some of that beauty here.
How did you build your mix of businesses?
We held a number of community charrettes. We asked our neighbors, “What do you guys want in your neighborhood?” They said, “We want entertainment. We want a nice place to go with our families.” What I was hearing from that was that they wanted a sense of place. We decided that the mission of the Mercado was to support small businesses, entrepreneurs, with a focus on local food and local food producers.
I heard repeatedly from local food producers of the need for a commercial kitchen. Seven years ago, there was essentially not any viable commercial kitchen in Tucson. So, we said, we want to have a kitchen. We want a bakery. We want to have a really great taqueria. Taqueria El Pueblito was the original taqueria here. Starting a restaurant business is really difficult and a lot of restaurants fail because of the cost. Taqueria el Pueblito was able to open with a minimal staff and grow their business with minimal risk. And now they have their own stand-alone restaurant. They were able to use the Mercado as a stepping stone. La Estrella Bakery found us. They have a very successful bakery on the south side, but had grown up in Menlo Park and were looking to get back into their own neighborhood.
What is a commercial kitchen?
The purpose of a commercial kitchen is to make your food business legitimate with the health department. But kitchens are very expensive to build. We were able to build ours with New Market Tax Credit financing [from the federal government], but they’re not enormously profitable entities. Thirty businesses use the kitchen and everything is on a case-by-case basis, from your rate to your lease. We charge $5 to $20 an hour, depending on your usage. Everybody pays a base hourly fee and then a base storage fee. Essentially, the kitchen pays for itself.
If I could go back in time, I’d make the kitchen twice as big. The demand for it is huge. We want a diverse kitchen, so we pick and choose our users. We want people who are making jams and pies and selling them at farmers’ markets. We have chocolate makers, soup makers, salsa makers. The Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation runs a Meals on Wheels program out of the kitchen. We have five food trucks. We have a kombucha maker.
When did the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market move to the Mercado?
The Community Food Bank [which runs the farmers’ market] was a really important partnership for us. I pursued them for four years before I got them to agree to move the market over here in June of 2012. When there is a sense of place, people come and they hang out. They come for multiple reasons. They come because they want to be around people and activity and then they might also buy some vegetables.
What are some of the challenges you face?
Summer is hard for the businesses here. We’re just west of downtown, so it took a long time for people to think of us in their downtown loop. But I think they’ve really found us, because they can come and they can stay for hours. I watched some ladies the other day get here for breakfast, and then I saw them leaving at like 5 o’clock. They had breakfast and lunch and then some wine before they left.
We try to keep a diverse atmosphere, which is challenging. It’s challenging to have something that appeals to everyone and that everyone is comfortable sharing.
What’s next for the Mercado?
The Mercado is in a really good place. Different stages of it have continued to open over the past three years, but we’re now fully open. We had a lot of incentives for our businesses to grow, but everybody is fully cemented and planted now. We’ll continue to support the businesses like the ones we hand-picked here into what hopefully will become a larger market district. One day we hope to do a grand-scale, beautiful building, 50 little booths—a great public market. ✜
Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona.
Follow her @megankimble.