Meet Market

A downtown neighborhood struggles over who will dominate the ethnic flavor of a supermarket where Latino and Anglo cultures collide

For a month or so this spring, the most confusing sign in Phoenix was the one on the broad beige façade of Southwest Supermarkets' new Phoenix store, at Seventh Street and McDowell Road. Its green and orange corporate cursive reads "SW Desert Market." But on a warm afternoon late in May, a repairman took it to mean "Not Southwest Supermarkets."

Standing outside the store, in dungarees and a blue work shirt, he puzzled briefly over the sign. Then, with the kind of "beats me" look you never want to see on the face of someone coming to fix something, he headed through the open front doors straight for Tony Gioia.

Sitting atop a nearby table, Gioia, the affable president of the grocery chain, was confidently reciting the ways in which the store -- still more than a week away from opening -- would differ from Southwest's older Latino-oriented supermarkets.

Tony Gioia sees SW Desert Market as one of his supermarket chain's first crossover stores.
Kevin Scanlon
Tony Gioia sees SW Desert Market as one of his supermarket chain's first crossover stores.

"The quality of the offering will be a little more higher end," he assured in his soft New York cadence. "The deli will be a bit more specialized. We're going to have fresh-made pizzas every day. We're going to have Chompies bagels in here. We're going to have sushi. Think of that, sushi!"

But the approaching repairman was thinking only about the name.

"Is this a Southwest market?" he asked hesitantly.

Gioia, who had been answering various forms of that question for months, was tired of hearing it. So his tone hardened:

"No, this is SW Desert Market."

The man was incredulous:

"This is not Southwest?"

It turned out that Mr. Fixit simply wanted to be shown the blown-out fan motor in the meat case.

Yet Gioia's testiness about the store's identity was telling.

Through much of the spring, he and Southwest had been bombarded by complaints from downtown neighborhood leaders who opposed the chain's purchase of the defunct ABCO store at the site.

They accused Southwest, which has catered to Hispanic shoppers for more than 20 years, of operating filthy stores, selling expired foods and moldy and repackaged meats, and blighting the neighborhoods that surround its markets.

They asked the city to intercede, pleaded with the high-rolling AJ's Fine Foods and Trader Joe's markets to move there instead, and threatened to boycott the Southwest store.

The reception -- as if the store were running an E. coli special in the produce section -- was a far cry from the one ABCO received when it moved in five years ago. Downtown business alliances hailed ABCO's arrival -- the first new downtown supermarket in years -- as crucial to schemes of attracting more high-end housing to the area. Residents said it would lead to the revival of downtown retail. The city even rolled out a green carpet of $200,000 in sidewalk and street improvements and rebates on city development fees.

Southwest opponents claimed that the company's reputation lay at the heart of the uproar.

"They've always set up in depressed or slum and blighted areas," says Trace Vencenza, president of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association, who helped to spearhead neighborhood opposition to Southwest. "So the stigma of bringing a store associated with a blighted area to a gentrified area just made people crazy."

But the opponents' critics claimed the commotion was more about affluent Anglos not wanting to shop in a grocery store filled with Mexicans. In what has become a familiar cycle of accusations in a city being reshaped by immigration, columnists from the Arizona Republic and Hispanic leaders branded neighborhood gripers -- even though they included a handful of African-Americans and Hispanics -- as well-heeled racists, if not classists -- sheltered urban gentry who used Southwest's past sins to cover their own objections to businesses catering to poor Latinos.

"It was pretty clear that on the one hand the stores were being attacked because of their clientele," says Luis Ibarra, president of Friendly House, a social service agency that assists Hispanics. "On the other, the issue was the quality of the product and the conditions of the stores. They're two separate issues. Now that the store is open, I know that people will tell you, 'Thank God Tony didn't make this a Mexican store.'"

But, in a way, Tony did.

"All the Mexican foods are here," says Gioia, waving with showroom confidence at the bright rows of fully-stocked shelves. "But they're low-key. We knew we had to appeal to the upscale Anglo, while still merchandising Latino items in a positive and exciting way."

Tucked away -- like plutonium -- in a cold case of their own are the organ meats and marrow guts that give ethnically challenged Anglo shoppers the willies. The rest of the store is arrayed with rows of the produce, canned and boxed goods that Latina cooks adore. And beyond the beans and rice in bulk are the spices, herbs and tortillas essential to Mexican meals.

Missing is the carniceria ambiance -- the down-home, full-on brass and squeezebox music and Spanish radio banter blasting above a cool heap of fresh tripe or pig snoots. There are no jewelry, music or check-cashing stores within the store (it has the same Wells Fargo branch that ABCO did), as there are at many other Southwest markets.

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