T here’s no shortage of places to buy groceries in Pinal County and the surrounding areas.
Chain grocery stores, big wholesale clubs, convenience stores, even big-box discount stores are open at all hours of the day. At some of them, you can toss a pair of pants and a garden rake in the cart next to your fruit and vegetables, or get your tires rotated while you pick out lawn furniture.
“The food industry is tough,” said T.J. McCuin, who along with his wife, Julie, owns Superstition Ranch Farmers Market in Apache Junction. “There’s a lot of competition. It helps if you can carve out a niche.”
Superstition Ranch found its niche a long time ago. The store sells fresh produce for low prices for people who want to eat healthy, save money and support local farmers.
The store at 7 N. 114th St. opened in 1976. A location in east Mesa has been open since 1966.
In addition to lots of fresh produce, the store carries items like honey, salsa and jelly from local culinary craftsmen.
“We’re really good at local produce and local products. We have a lot of little mom and pop vendors,” McCuin said. “We have the best quality and the best price on produce. That’s what we hang our hat on.”
T.J. McCuin grew up in the grocery business and worked at Smith’s and Fry’s. He grew tired of “a kid in a white shirt and a tie” telling him what to do when he thought he knew a better way. Rather than explain it to the kid, he decided to buy his own market. “I never did take direction well,” he said.
He started with Guadalupe Farmers Market, then Power Road Farmers Market. Around five years ago, Superstition Ranch owner Pauline Matheson was getting ready to retire and agreed to sell the store to the McCuins. Her husband, Ray, was the original store owner. In 2003 he was killed after confronting a suspected shoplifter.
“(Ray) built a lot of relationships with a lot of farmers, and we maintained them and nurtured them and kept them going,” T.J. said.
T.J.’s father, Terry, is the store’s buyer. He worked with Ray from 1987 to 1996. “We dusted him off and stuck him back in the chair and said, ‘Go to work,’ and he’s been doing it ever since,” T.J. said.
During the times of year when certain crops are out of season in Arizona, Terry has the connections to get them from out of state. Carrots and beets, for example, are brought in from Oregon and Colorado.
“Anything available locally is where we start,” T.J. said. “If it’s in season and it’s available locally, we’ve got it.”
The store also has a wholesale business that has grown. It serves a lot of local restaurants and people who engage in activities like canning and jarring.
People come from as far away as Florence, Maricopa and Superior to look over the aisles of produce on display at the two stores.
“We see a lot of people who drive here once a week. They say they can save enough money that it is worth the drive,” T.J. said.
Despite tough competition in the grocery business, in some ways now is a great time for the local farmers market. For several years, a movement toward healthy eating and shopping locally has grown. People have become more interested in the food they eat and where it comes from.
“It’s rewarding just seeing a family with a bunch of kids come in and buy a bunch of produce — to be able to help a family eat right and save money,” T.J. said.