Popular farmers market on 17th St. closing down

Increasing competition, slower sales at warehouse are among the reasons
2013-02-14T00:00:00Z 2013-02-14T14:00:51Z Popular farmers market on 17th St. closing downKimberly Matas and Carmen Duarte Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Hard-to-find Asian foods, fruits, produce, teas, snacks and seasonings soon will be a little harder to come by in Tucson when the 17th Street Farmers Market closes.

Parent company Tucson Food Service announced on its website Wednesday that the store will close in March.

The market, which started with produce sales on the company loading dock, grew during its 20 years into the place to find exotic fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and fish, and just about everything needed for the budding foodie or the experienced chef to cook up Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Chinese dishes.

Far different from chain grocery stores, the 17th Street Farmers Market, at 840 E. 17th St., is in a warehouse surrounded by railroad tracks. It features aisle after aisle of colorfully packaged, premade foods; a massive, refrigerated produce room with what is likely the largest selection of organic produce in Tucson; and a variety of fish, meat, sausage and cheese.

Shoppers were saddened by the news of the market closing.

"Their fresh produce is the best," said Ernesto Porras, 32, a graphic designer who found out about the closing through an email.

"I've been coming here for six years. I loved their fish market before it closed. I first came here to buy my sushi supplies. I still come to buy packaged shrimp," Porras said.

"I am going to miss the whole experience of this market, including walking through the plastic curtains into the cool produce section. Employees always gave my son, Sol, a free apple," Porras said.

"This place focused on quality," Porras said. "I don't think there is any other market that measures up to it."

In recent years, the market has also been a go-to venue for live music, as well as the place to shop for CDs and musical instruments.

Despite a following of regular customers, the market's sales numbers have been declining, J.J. Farr, assistant store manager, said.

"There are a lot of stores out there that are competing ... and we can't do it anymore. We've tried to keep it going here, but it's a downward spiral for us," Farr said.

He attributes the closing to multiple factors, including a down economy, the closing of the store's popular fish counter and added competition from other specialty grocers.

"It started a couple years ago when we closed the fish market," Tom Kusian, president and CEO, said. "Seafood had been steadily rising in price and supplies were diminishing. That used to be one of the biggest draws to our store and we decided it was no longer viable to operate that part of it, so we shut that down."

At the same time, other divisions within the company began expanding and taking more time, staff and warehouse space, Kusian said.

Tucson Food Service also operates Tucson Party Rentals, a commercial catering company and a grocery distribution center, and recently started preparing meals for students at charter schools.

As management has scaled back the market operation, fewer employees were needed.

"If somebody left us, we just wouldn't replace them," Kusian said. "It's been a progressive scale back of the store, and it started ... when we closed the fish market. We finally got to the point we felt it's probably best to utilize the space for our divisions that are growing."

Almost all of the six or seven market employees will be absorbed into the other divisions, Kusian said.

Customer Elisa Parra's ties to the market go way back. She was a cashier there 15 years ago. "It used to be a very busy store," Parra said, looking at a handful of shoppers who were in the market Wednesday.

"Now I love to cook for my family and shop here for vegetables and specialty items. I come here to buy Chinese sausage and noodles, and prepackaged oysters. I have even bought a duck and goose from here," said Parra, 33.

The market served neighborhoods south of downtown, said Billy Holmes, 38, an apartment manager and Pima Community College art student.

"It is the only market in the neighborhood that carried organic and local products. Where can we shop for produce like this with actual rich flavor?" he asked.

"This place focused on quality. I don't think there is any other market that measures up to it."

Ernesto Porras, customer, 17th Street Farmers Market

Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or at 573-4191.

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