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By Eric Schaefer
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Guadalupe Farmer's Market, 9210 Avenida del Yaqui (at Guadalupe Road), Guadalupe, 730-1945. Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Right in the center of the sleepy town of Guadalupe is the veritable county fair of fresh produce called Guadalupe Farmer's Market.
Housed in a modest building at the intersection of Guadalupe Road and Avenida del Yaqui, the unpretentious greengrocer has been, until recently, one of the Valley's best-kept secrets. In the tradition of the mom-and-pop roadside produce stands driven to extinction by urban sprawl and ubiquitous supermarkets, this tiny retailer has been selling top-of-the-line, locally grown produce since 1989. To its throngs of loyal fans, the store is a great source for hard-to-find ingredients as well as a welcome bit of nostalgia. To Curt Cooper, owner and resident fruit-and-vegetable expert, it is a boyhood dream realized.
A 20-year veteran of the chain-store produce industry and self-described "corporate dropout," Cooper struck out on his own nine years ago. One afternoon, while driving through Guadalupe to his home in Mountain Park, Cooper noticed a building with a "For Lease" sign perched in its front window. Convinced that it was the perfect location for the small produce market he had always dreamed of opening, he stopped to inquire and wrote the landlord a check the very same day. "I was afraid to tell my wife," he jokes. But Cooper's impetuous act turned out well.
Cooper explains his produce-peddling philosophy succinctly: "We do everything the chains don't do," he claims. What that translates to is buying local, constantly upgrading and expanding his inventory and selling only what he considers to be the very best produce available, often at prices far below his supermarket competitors'. Cooper's insistence on buying from local producers has made him something of a maverick, and a local hero to smaller growers. Oddly, although Arizona is the third largest producer of vegetables and citrus in the United States, most of the Valley's large chain grocers buy their produce elsewhere. Cooper explains, "Their big thing is that they deal with brokers, and brokers don't like to buy Arizona."
Quality wasn't always Cooper's first concern. "In the beginning, I would buy seconds and cheap produce because I thought that was what everyone was looking for," he admits. But then, he began noticing that customers would enter the store, take a look around at the low-priced provisions, and promptly leave. Cooper set to work figuring out what his shoppers wanted and soon changed his approach.
"People kept telling me, 'If you bring in better stuff, we'll buy it.'" Cooper listened, upgraded the quality of the produce he sold, and watched his business boom.
Cooper's listening skills have served him well. His attentiveness to customers' needs and requests has resulted in an inventory that is singular and, increasingly, diverse. Don't stop in expecting to find 10-for-a-dollar lemons. When Cooper tells you that he is particular about his produce, he isn't just paying lip service; this man knows his rutabagas from his red chard. He combs the Valley and its environs for local growers offering first-rate produce, and then extends the search outward. His quest for the best takes him weekly as far as the celebrated Los Angeles Farmer's Market, where he acquires the specialty items he isn't able to find locally.
For those who are in search of the exotic and non-pedestrian, Cooper's special efforts really deliver. A recent visit yielded fresh fava beans, variegated gray zucchini, bunches of tiny Red Cuban and burro bananas, celery root, globe grapes, Key limes, seven varieties of organic herbs (grown in Tolleson), manilla mangos, Vidalia onions and blood oranges.
Cooper's inventory reflects a definite ethnic bent, one that caters particularly to the area's Hispanic population. Diversity, it seems, has always been this market's strong suit, and also one of its biggest draws. The store regularly stocks an impressive array of fresh chili peppers, including such varieties as turbo-hot habaneros, poblanos, serranos, yellow hots and jalapenos. New Mexican green chilies, roasted, peeled and seeded on the premises, are sold by the pound.
Large, thin-skinned Reed avocados (choice for making guacamole), nopales (the flat, ear-shaped pad of the nopal cactus), chayote squash, dried corn husks, fresh epazote, hibiscus pods, papayas and Mexican sodas are also stocked on a regular basis.
Store staples include freshly squeezed apple, carrot and orange juice, local honey and sublime local beefsteak and cluster tomatoes. Always vine-ripened and never refrigerated, they are truly a revelation. Every year, from the beginning of August through the end of October, fresh chili ristras, both edible and decorative, are available. The store also sells fresh tamales made on the premises by a Guadalupe woman. Available fresh or frozen, you can choose from red beef, green chili or chicken.
Now's the time to make a weekend pilgrimage to sample the freshly roasted sweet corn peddled from a small cart parked out front. Roasted in its husk, you can doctor up your ear with a slathering of butter, a squeeze of lime and a sprinkling of Mexican hot sauce.
With a recent barrage of press coverage, "Best of" awards and mentions in both Arizona Highways and The New York Times, it appears that the Guadalupe Farmer's Market has been discovered. But Cooper and his small, attentive and knowledgeable staff aren't letting fame go to their heads. They still take the time to answer questions, ship citrus back East for customers, core pineapples, make up gift baskets or hand out samples of anything a shopper's heart may desire. Superfluous? Perhaps. But, in the world of specialty groceries, it's the little things that make all the difference.