Mesa market

Terry McCuin and his son T.J. McCuin run the Superstition Ranch Market in Mesa. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

Now 85, Terry McCuin was retired, living his best life at a lake house in Montana, pretty much minding his own business. 

But when his 62-year old son T.J. called him with a business proposition, Terry was back in the fold. 

And it really didn’t take much arm-twisting. 

“We brought dad in and dusted him off and put him back in the chair and put him back to work,” chuckled T.J. McCuin. “This wasn’t his dream. This was mine. His dream wasn’t to go back to work at 78.”

It might not have been Terry McCuin’s dream, but it was his fault. Terry had heard a rumor that the iconic Superstition Ranch Farmers Market in northeast Mesa might be for sale. 

He had worked there, managed the place, really, in the 1990’s. 

He called T.J. and “suggested that maybe you oughta give Pauline a call,” he said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have told him.”

Established by Ray and Pauline Matheson in 1966, Superstition Ranch Market has become synonymous with a little stretch of the gravel shoulder along the south side of Main Street just east of Greenfield Road. 

Its bright and artfully done hand painted signs on sheets of plywood and the white clapboard exterior of the place, shout out the daily produce sales, beckoning passersby to stop, park in the dirt lot, and take a gander at the fresh apples, strawberries and grapes on display. 

This is part farmers market, part old fashioned grocery store. 

“It’s kind of a hodge podge because of how they added on but we kept it kind of unique,” T.J. McCuin said. “When Pauline was ready to sell it she wanted us to keep it the same. That was kind of our selling point. We had the same vision.” 

McCuin is intent on continuing Superstition Ranch Market’s success in pretty much the same way, and not changing the model that has led to that success: buying what suppliers still need to get rid of after the “big guys” have bought their truckloads. 

“When Del Monte has a truckload of bananas come in and they’ve sold to Costco and they’ve got six pallets left and the next bin is coming in, they’ll call us up and say ‘we’ve got six bins of bananas,’” he said. 

“We are there to clean up what’s left. That’s kind of our niche.” 

T.J. McCuin’s other specialty has been his ability to foster and maintain close contacts with suppliers, growers, truckers and all the people in between over the years.

“I think the thing that keeps it going is the relationships,” he said. “You have the same relationships that we had in the 90’s now, and that’s kind of the fun part. A lot of the buyers we had back then know me now and we have kept all those relationships.

“It’s important with all of the buyers that we have had over the years to maintain that trust and maintain that relationship so that we can continue to compete with the big guys.” 

Those are the people he depends on to do the carefully choreographed dance of getting fresh produce from the fields to the store, keeping it displayed all day, then storing it overnight to keep it ready to sell. 

“We probably have about 120,000 square feet of coolers,” McCuin said. “We keep the tomatoes a little warmer. They don’t like to be under 40 degrees.” 

Those coolers are inconspicuously out of sight behind the market where the fruit sorting machine is. 

Neither grocery stores nor most farmers markets have one of these: a long belt-driven rack that allows McCuin to accept, sort and sell locally grown fruit the same day that it’s picked.  

Superstition Ranch Market has a lot of loyal customers who swear by the place and won’t go anywhere else. 

“The produce is always good and the prices are always probably better than the grocery stores,” said Michael Kailas, who has been coming here for 35 years. 

“It’s old school,” Kailas said. “Nothing terribly fancy. Although they have upgraded it the last couple of years – shelves and different products, things that they never used to have before.” 

Weather patterns have shifted and growing seasons have tightened. All of that has a domino effect on the rest of the supply chain. 

“Food is getting short,” Terry said.  “It’s probably mostly weather. There is a big gap when you can’t get it. The weather is so bad. A crop will be ready now and then three months later the next crop is ready. Climate change is part of it.” 

Those changes are directly reflected on the store shelves. 

T.J. said growers have had to be nimbler with crop management and feel pressure to become more profitable. Less water in California means more growers are going to Mexico, for example.  

“A lot of the growers don’t grow near what they used to in the ‘90s,” he said. “You got a ton less strawberries today than you did (then). 

And there are corporate factors, too. 

“The Doles and Del Montes have moved in and taken over the smaller farmers and those accountants come in,” he said, explaining that they tally the amount of product sold the prior year, plant just that amount or less, and drive up prices.

Somehow, though, in its funky, little side-of-the-road hybrid grocery store and farmer’s market, Superstition Ranch Market has managed to continue to do what it does best – keep the aisles full of shoppers, and the produce fresh and attractive. 

“For me, success is when somebody walks in and they’ve got a little kid with them and they say ‘when I was a little girl, my mom brought me here and we used to get taffy,’” said T.J. McCuin.  ‘Or, I shopped here when I was a little girl and I love it.’ 

“To me, that’s when you know you’ve been successful when you get that feedback from the next generation to the next generation. That’s the whole goal. To me, that’s success.”

Information:  superstitionranchmarket.com. 480-832-3421

 

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