Market Forces

17th Street Market is opening in a different form

Imagine, if you will, an international farmers market you would likely see in Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles—but located in downtown Tucson.

"Basically, (the 17th Street Market) is opening in a different form. It will be more along the lines of Pike Place Market in Seattle with multiple vendors," owner Tom Kusian said. "It just seems that Tucson is ripe for it."

The new 17th Street Market, located in the former Tucson Food Service building, will feature three air-conditioned areas—the farm, the square and the street—that can house up to 15 vendors, host live music and sell local artisanal crafts. When it comes to provisions and vittles, Kusian said the market's mission is to sell international grocery goods alongside rare and seasonal produce as well as prepared specialty foods from all over the world. They're currently looking for vendors who can fill that need.

"I think with COVID and everything, people are looking for small and large opportunities to sell goods, so I think the timing makes sense," Kusian said. "This is going to be a lot of fun. I'm very excited to be doing this."

The new market will also feature a walk-in produce cooler—like the previous market—for those hard to find fresh items. Kusian said he has plans to bring back their famed fish market in time, which is great news since Rincon Market recently closed its doors.

"I'm having a discussion with the possible person who would take on that side of the market. We'll just have to see where that leads," Kusian said. "Hopefully, we'll have a large selection of fish."

Kusian said he understands the concern of opening amid a pandemic, but with the market now located in the 64,000 square-foot space, he believes social distancing should be achievable since they plan on starting out with limited vendors.

"There's definitely concerns with opening during the pandemic, but it's an essential business and will operate like a grocery store," Kusian said. "Keeping that in mind, we're going to have a lot of space for social distancing. We'll be keeping people safe by following the mandated guidelines."

At the moment, Kusian said the market will only be open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and potential vendors would rent out space by the day. He said he would like to expand his operating hours and allow vendors to rent stalls by the month if the demand is there.

"Potential vendors will rent out tables by the day and our price is competitive with what other outdoor markets charge. But a few nice benefits are we're air-conditioned, you don't have to bring tables or a tent," Kusian said. "Once we get to a point where we're bringing on vendors who want to have more of a presence, we'll start opening more than one day a week."

The owner said inspiration struck after visiting Seattle's Pike Place Market while his daughter was attending the University of Washington.

"My daughter, Julie, went to UW and I stopped by the Pike Place Market and thought, 'Boy, this is really a cool concept,' and it always stuck in my mind," Kusian said. "Even when we had the store before, people would tell me it reminded them of the Pike Place Market."

Kusian originally started the 17th Street Market in 1993 after receiving a load of organic Rainier cherries from a Willcox farmer who had trouble selling the sweet treats to regional chain grocers. The entrepreneur decided to help the farmer by hosting a "dock sale" at his 17th Street warehouse. The advertising campaign consisted of posting homemade signs along 22nd Street and Broadway Boulevard—Rainier Cherries, 3 pounds for a $1.

"We agreed to take (the cherries) and help sell the load for him. I thought we should have a dock sale, so we put several pallets of the cherries right at the entrance and sold them for three pounds for a buck," Kusian said. "We had swarms of people that day and it eventually evolved into a 2,000-square-foot store."

While the original 17th Street Market had a devoted following, the store closed in March 2013 due to declining sales and new competitors, said Kusian.

"We ran that store for 20 years and when different competitors came to town, I thought we should try something different rather than carry it on anymore," Kusian said.

The new 17th Street Market is connected to the old building but located just to the west at 870 E. 17th Street, near Park Avenue. The market's hours of operation are every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. starting on Saturday, July 11.

"I started the original market with just a little dock sale and it took off pretty rapidly," Kusian said. "Hopefully, the response is favorable and will keep the snowball rolling."

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