Think of the Ranch Markets as the AJ's of Mexican grocers, where shoppers pick up their nopales and tortillas and aguas frescas while walking in a place with high ceilings, lots of wood and decorative signs like "Panederia" and "La Cocina."
At the store on 59th Avenue and Thomas recently, festive Mexican music blared as customers pushed their carts filled with meats, eggs and vegetables. Kids ran around like they were at the park. The store was packed but the lines to leave were never long because every check-out counter was open. Imagine that.
"It's all the way live," said Aminta Marinero slangily. The 23-year-old Chicana was handing out samples of Cacique Cheese and pointed out how the place had the atmosphere of a party: "Come on, people come here dressed like they're going dancing." Like other assimilated Latinos, Marinero says she shops at mainstream groceries (Fry's, in her case), but she marvels at the care Ranch Markets' customers take to look good. "Not me, I just do my hair and go. But that's what makes this place so popular. They come dressed to impress. You don't see that at other stores."
The place also has an eatery, and spotted relaxing there was a burly Phoenix firefighter.
Larry Contreras asked a passing child in Spanish if he, too, would like someday to be a bombero. "Sí!" responded the tyke. Contreras reached into a bag of goodies and pulled out three shiny red plastic firefighter hats for the beaming kid and his two younger siblings.
It's become a regular exchange, part of the Phoenix Fire Department's Spanish Language Immersion Program. Besides eating hearty meals at the market, the bomberos wander the mercado seeking further cultural interactions. "This place is great. It's like being in Mexico," Contreras said as he passed out more goodies. "We ask kids questions in Spanish before handing out gifts." The goal of the program is to provide basic communication skills in emergency situations for half of the firefighters in the Valley.
It hasn't been a smooth transition for all of them, however. Contreras said that one brave rescue worker was particularly apprehensive about soaking up Mexican culture at the supermarket. "We had to push him inside, and he's a big guy," Contreras said. "At the fish counter he was traumatized when a big fish with big eyes was tossed in the fryer. But he loosened up. Now he strolls down the aisles with a smile on his face. This place does that to you."