Herb Garden, Catering Coming to 17th Street Market

December 19, 2011

By Teya Vitu

The 17th Street Market has seen striking changes in the past few months.

The wall in back is where the huge Asian section used to be at the 17th Street Market.

The fish counter is gone. The Asian section has been downscaled and, with that, 6,500 square feet of the market were walled off for warehouse storage.

On the other hand, CEO Tom Kusian right now is building an herbal greenhouse right by the front door, and he’s on the verge of giving the market a showroom for his party rental and catering divisions.

“We’ve gotta keep going,” Kusian said. “I’ve got much bigger plans for this operation than what we’ve lost.”

By early January, you should be able to buy potted herbs at the market known for its refrigerated produce room. Kusian started adding a small selection of standard supermarket items such as Cheerios and Frosted Flakes cereals in the fall.

17th Street Market will remain an international foodie haven, and Kusian believes he can also provide the basic grocery items found at more traditional supermarkets.

Tom Kusian

“We feel we’re a part of Downtown,” Kusian said. “This is a really good option for Downtown grocery shopping. A lot of people when they are here would like to have more basic stuff. When students move down here, we want to have stuff students would want. We’re handling more items for the people who live Downtown.”

Kusian says that adding supermarket fare will not come at the expense of the bountiful English, European and Asian selections plus the full aisle of teas that make the 17th Street Market a singular favorite. It’s just a matter of shelving tricks. Kusian pointed out that often enough an item has three rows on the shelf.

“We don’t have to allocate three lines to this,” he said about one soy milk.

Some shoppers likely think of only the 17th Street Market when they head into the warehouse district to this gem of a store that, like Roma Imports, breaks every retail rule for location, location, location.

But the 17th Street Market is just a small part, no more than 10 or 15 percent, of Kusian’s Tucson Food Service Group that fills the entire warehouse block. The bread-and-butter is the wholesale food distribution primarily to hotels, institutions and correctional facilities that makes Tucson Food Service the largest family-owned food distributor in southern Arizona.

Tucson Food Service added the 17th Street Music Shop six or seven years ago and then Tucson Party Rentals. In fall 2010, Alan Haynes Catering joined Kusian’s operation, and Kusian is building this new commercial catering wing with a passion.

Tucson Food Service in June 2011 got the catering contract for the city golf courses at Randolph, Silverbell, El Rio and Fred Enke.

He is marrying this golf course contract with the 17th Street Market. His company catered the first “Wedding on the Green” at Randolph in November, and he wants to make that a regular option.

Soon 17th Street Market will become a one-stop shop for party rentals, catering and the long-established international foods and local produce.

“We have all the resources to be a major player in catering,” Kusian said. “We want to offer that to anyone who walks into the store. We will have a showroom for party rentals and catering.”

The first noticeable change at 17th Street Market came earlier in 2011 when the 19,000-square-foot retail area was reduced to 12,000 square feet with a new wall that sliced right through what was the Asian section.

A new Asian market on the Northwest Side took a sizeable bite out of 17th Street Market’s Asian sales.

“We needed the storage,” Kusian said. “Instead of six aisles of Asian food that was not doing well, we consolidated that area for warehouse storage. We still have the largest Asian selection of anybody with the exception of the major Asian distributors.”

The fresh fish counter disappeared a couple months ago, too. Kusian drew the sustainable, ethical, philosophical line in the sand. Plus customers started resisting the price creep of fish with some varieties costing up to $22.99 per pound.

“With fish there is more demand than supply. There is overfishing,” Kusian said. “We want to handle sustainable seafood. We are limiting some of the species. Red snapper in the Sea of Cortez are being overfished. Smaller fish are coming to market. We will only carry it when we get the bigger ones. We’re not going to sell shark any more. It’s not sustainable.”

The seafood selection is now down to about six feet of cooler space in the refrigerated produce and dairy room. The selection changes by the week. The recent stock included steelhead trout, tiger shrimp, oysters, tilapia and Atlantic salmon.

Kusian is especially excited about the herb greenhouse getting built during the holiday season between the store entrance and the produce room. It will carry potted herbs from Avra Valley.

A corrugated tin wall and wood paneling will add ambiance to the new herb greenhouse at the 17th Street Market.

A roll-up door in the northern wall will be kept open to allow daylight to shower on the herbs, which will also be bathed with special lighting.

“I may just expand the greenhouse outside the store,” Kusian said.

The herb greenhouse makes perfect sense when you look at the 17th Street Market’s history. Kusian offered loading dock space for a Willcox farmer to sell his cherries in 1992. Within weeks that evolved into Tom’s Downtown Farmers Market, and in 1993 that became the 17th Street Market, which broadened to international foods in 1994-95.

“We’re getting back to our roots,” said Kusian, well aware of his literal play on words. “We may do a farmers market on the weekends outside.”