South Central Mercado aims to develop south Phoenix small businesses

South Central Mercado aims to develop south Phoenix small businesses
South Central Mercado aims to develop south Phoenix small businesses

One specific Saturday during the South Central Mercado season is the site of the open air market, with music, a rainbow of clothing, glittering trinkets, and a sweet combination of smells ranging from handmade hand soap to fragrant coffee and Pupusas alive when cooking a frying pan.

Part of the allure of the Mercado is the celebration of the cultures that give south Phoenix its character and that it is a place of community. It’s an event that some people who grew up in the neighborhood travel miles for, say the organizers.

Additionally, the organizers – Sam Gomez, Cecilia Rivera, and Joe Muñoz – walk small businesses through the tedious paperwork, sometimes translating city forms, and explaining to sellers what to do for a successful business that meets the guidelines. The Mercado’s long-term goal is to become an “incubator” for small business growth.

“With the changes and the light rail, the South Central Mercado is because it serves that community,” said Gomez. “It’s like a pipe, and the goal is also like, ‘How do we get people who start building a stand to end up somewhere with a brick and mortar?’ And I think it’s like a way to own It’s a way of taking your company from a booth to a real space. “

The Mercado kicked off its third season on Saturday at its new location, 410 E. Southern Ave., where sponsor Raza Development Fund will open its new offices later this year. The Raza Development Fund provides loans to nonprofits to provide services to low-income neighborhoods and supports loans for small businesses.

Alma Sanchez and her daughter Adeline Sanchez pose with their personalized mugs at the South Central Mercado in Phoenix on November 6, 2021.

Turn a plan into reality

The mercado began as a series of conversations following Muñoz’s involvement with Hustle Phoenix, a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs in underserved communities grow their businesses. What he saw every day contradicted the negative narrative about South Phoenix, he said, and it made him wonder how he could better serve entrepreneurs who lacked resources or support.

“I’ve started to see a lot of talent,” said Muñoz. “Sam and I started arguing that there weren’t any resources out there (south of Phoenix) to help people start businesses and so on. There are some great organizations out there that are doing a great job of teaching the basics of business, but we saw a gap in teaching the basics to do it. “

The plan came about in five weeks, something the founders say is emblematic of what can happen when people have the resources to make their dreams come true. The first building block of the Mercado concept is to give small businesses a space to be seen and to interact with the community. The second component, which is still in development, is business training on topics such as accounting and product pricing.

By working with the community during the Mercado’s three years, the founders were able to identify gaps in the community, familiarize themselves with detailed details about permits and paperwork, and develop solutions to common problems.

The former liquor store will be transformed into a coffee shop, communal kitchen and meeting room in the south of Phoenix.

The trio recently teamed up with a philanthropic investor who helped them purchase an enclosed liquor store that they will convert into a communal cafe and kitchen that home cooks can use to make their products in order to obtain business licenses. Maricopa County’s health standards prohibit grocery vendors from cooking groceries in a home kitchen, and kitchen space to rent is difficult to get.

Bureaucratic hurdles are one of the main reasons companies, especially those they’ve worked with in southern Phoenix, never get off the ground, Rivera said. While she and Gomez described building the mercado as a collaborative learning process, she quickly began unraveling the confusion around permits and taxes to assist the sellers.

“I had to become an expert on permits and that sort of thing because a lot of it stopped a lot of companies from moving forward,” said Rivera. “It’s the prices behind the permits and which are the right ones. And not only the permit for food sellers, but also taxes for product sellers. “

Local suppliers also told the Mercado founders at the beginning of the project that one of their most pressing concerns would be the loss of their business due to the development of the light rail system. Gomez, founder of The Sagrado gallery in south Phoenix, which focuses on sustainable design, is working on a prototype 20-foot container space that can house businesses that could be displaced by rapid development. He hopes to be able to create further innovations to protect local providers from displacement.

The goal is to have a permanent mercado that is shaped by input from suppliers. Gomez said the mercado creates space to start conversations about what the community wants for their future Discussions that lead to something that really belongs to them. He wants to empower the community to take control of the future of the neighborhood instead of letting external entities decide.

“If you don’t know what you want, you will be force-fed,” said Gomez. “So a lot of our work revolves around property. We have to imagine what South Central will look like in the future. We need to have these conversations. I think sustainability comes from ownership. But property isn’t just physical, it’s intellectual. It’s the people who do the hard work. “

Eunice Herrera prepares her mini pancake plate at the South Central Mercado in Phoenix on November 6, 2021.

Connect the community

Laura Peña and her husband Francisco Celaya left their regular jobs to start Bonita’s Kitchen, a Mexican food truck and catering company. It was a dream of her husband, a professional chef, to bring soothing Mexican flavors to the community.

“It’s a passion of his,” said Peña. “He’s like a kid for Christmas with a new toy.”

The couple started with the mercado when Peña Hustle discovered Phoenix and she met Rivera and Muñoz.

Francisco Celaya, owner and chef at Bonita's Kitchen, poses in front of the food truck in the South Central Mercado in Phoenix on November 6, 2021.

Starting a business is never easy, Peña said, but she is grateful for the support the mercado has given her and the network of people she is connected to, especially last year when the pandemic weighed on small businesses .

With she and Celaya quitting their regular jobs to work their food truck full time and the pandemic canceling weddings and community events, their main source of income was at risk. Bonita’s Kitchen received a $ 5,000 pandemic relief loan from the Raza Development Fund.

“We were able to get in touch with the Raza Fund not because of the Mercado, but through the Mercado,” said Peña. “That helped us through a difficult time.”

The mercado stands in direct contrast to negative stereotypes about South Phoenix and defies the narrative that South Phoenix is ​​inherently absent, Gomez said. By building this space, it shows that even in the face of divestment, a space for celebration and community advancement is possible, the founders said.

“I’ve heard a lot: ‘Nobody has ever done that before. We needed something like that in South Phoenix, ‘”said Rivera. “I thought that was great, of course … but it also made me sad that no one had ever done that before. It literally took us five weeks. Just the simple fact that it has never really been done in this area, when there is a lot going on in the greater Phoenix area that looks like what we do but not in this community … for whatever reason, has turned out to be proven wrong. “

Peña said the Mercado created a much-needed space for small businesses to be a mutual support network and learn from one another. It has also helped her connect with the community, and she sees it as a way to lead neighbors to businesses that they can support in a family-friendly setting.

“Only word of mouth will people follow you and then they’ll come out and see you, get to know you and trust you,” said Peña. “Then they start to follow you everywhere. The mercado really makes a difference. “

What’s next?

The founders hope they can work with other nonprofits with a similar mission to offer sellers more opportunities to grow their businesses, as well as investors who want to support a cause like theirs.

“We were overwhelmed with the support from the community,” said Muñoz. “So what does that show? That it is necessary for this. We are only one unit. We need more of it. “

In addition to its new space, the Mercado is bringing back live music performances and Baile Folklorico that were pushed into the background during last year’s run due to the pandemic. The next event on November 20th coincides with the opening of the new Raza Development Fund offices and includes the unveiling of a laser-cut mural.

The Mercado takes place every second Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Vendors can apply at

Megan Taros covers South Phoenix for The Arizona Republic. Do you have a tip? You can reach her at or on Twitter @megataros. Your reporting is supported by Report for America and a grant from the Vitalyst Health Foundation.

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