QUINCY — Phil Blackburn isn’t Hispanic. He wasn’t born in Mexico, and he doesn’t speak much Spanish.
But two weeks ago the 58-year-old veteran grocer opened one of North Central Washington’s largest grocery stores aimed at the region’s growing Hispanic community.
What: Rebuilt after a fire two years ago, a new grocery store offering a blend of Latino and Anglo brands and products
Where: 807 First Ave. SW, Quincy
When: Open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Of note: Expansive produce and meat departments with bakery, deli and (coming soon) gelato made on-site.
Make that reopened. Destroyed by fire more than two years ago, the former Quincy Market — now El Mercado de Quincy — has been renamed, redesigned, rebuilt and restocked with a combination of Latino and Anglo brands that, Blackburn says, bring together the best of both worlds.
“We’re a complete grocery store where anybody can do all their weekly shopping,” said Blackburn. “But we feature Hispanic foods and brands. After all, Quincy’s more than 60 percent Hispanic.”
Last week, the south-of-the-border emphasis was obvious. Dozens of large, shiny piñatas hung from the ceiling of the 23,000-square-foot store. Boxes of Mexican cookies and candies lined the shelves. A display of candied guava was nearly sold out. The drink aisle featured more Jarritos sodas, a Mexican brand, than Pepsi and Coke.
All good, said Blackburn, but the store’s primary emphasis in on “fresh” — fresh produce, meats, fish and deli, and bakery items mostly from scratch on a daily basis.
“Latino families prepare a lot of fresh food at home and often skip the prepackaged and frozen stuff,” said Blackburn. He walked to the piled-high produce department and waved a hand over mounds of mangos, avocados and bins filled with nopales (prickly pear cactus), spiny chayuto squash and stalks of sugar cane.
This summer, El Mercado will compete against roadside fruit and vegetable stands, said Blackburn, “so we try to go to the same sources, the same local farmers and orchardists, so our items are as fresh as possible.”
The grocer pointed to a table stacked with 5-pound sacks of Grant County spuds at 99 cents a bag. “This is what I’m talking about,” he said. “Local source, good price.”
Meat, too, is key to Latino cooking, Blackburn said. So the new store features an expansive meat department — “larger that you would might normally find in a store this size,” he added — that includes specialty offerings such as fajitas (beef, onions, peppers) and some sausages.
Blackburn said he’s been moving all his life — 42 years in the grocery business — toward owning a store like El Mercado. He was raised in Othello, an agricultural community with a large Hispanic population, where he got his start working for Akins Foods.
Later, he went to work for West Coast distributor Associated Grocers, now Unified Grocers, and helped develop their Hispanic product lines.
Just over five years ago, Blackburn purchased both Martin’s Market Place in Cashmere and the Quincy Market and was soon introducing more Mexican brands and Hispanic-aimed products to satisfy needs of the Latino populations in both communities. By 2009, he’d redesigned the interior of the Quincy Market to include aisles of Hispanic offerings.
Then disaster struck. On Nov. 7, 2009, a nighttime fire destroyed the Quincy Market and left nearly two dozen employees without jobs. “It was a tough time,” said Blackburn. “But I knew that, at some point, we’d be back.”
Nearly two years later, Blackburn and business manager David Weber broke ground last autumn on the new Quincy Market, now El Mercado de Quincy. “It was a huge milestone in our lives,” said Blackburn. “Lots of thinking, lots of new ideas in design and display and products that needed to be studied and applied.”
Now, Blackburn said El Mercado is in the forefront of grocery store design in Central Washington — a warehouse look with high, open ceilings, concrete floors, in-aisle displays, dramatic spot lighting and a newly trained crew.
“After the fire,” said the grocery owner, “a lot of customers left town to do their shopping. But now we believe we have a good reason for them to return — to buy local goods at a local store and support our local community.”
Mike Irwin: 665-1179