The South Phoenix Liquor Store is transforming into a coffee shop and communal kitchen

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A shuttered liquor store on the corner of Southern Avenue and 10th Street looks like it never closed, with beer advertisements on the facade and metal bars protecting the windows.

The object, which has been vacant for almost a year, is a wonderland of different aesthetics.

Its main room is almost as well preserved as the building itself. The old shelves are still standing, only dusty, behind the counter are old family photos of the shopkeepers. The back gives way to a small kitchen, pink carpeting, and a maze of doors that lead outside: a piece of baked earth that cracks under the sun, a collapsing wooden roof, delicate plants, and a surviving tangerine tree.

The empty square in south Phoenix will soon become a communal cafe, communal kitchen that local grocery vendors can use, and a place for local farmers to sell fresh produce.

“We’re turning a vice that has no community value and we’re turning it into something positive,” said Sam Gomez, founder of The Sagrado, a nonprofit art gallery that will lead the new development. “It’s a space that puts local entrepreneurs at the center and brings something healthy and happy to the community.”

Connect the community with food

Gomez is also the founder of the South Central Mercado along with Cecilia Rivera. The open-air market takes place every second Saturday in the parking lot next to The Sagrado, away from Central and Southern Avenues. The mercado helps increase the visibility of small businesses and serves as a launch pad for many. Rivera is also a business coach for vendors helping them navigate the complicated language of city documents, create business plans, and apply for licenses.

Visitors to the South Central Mercado browse the vendors.  The makers of the Mercado discovered that many vendors who applied to sell did not have a license.  They are opening a communal kitchen to give them a place to cook their food legally.

One of the reasons for creating the new cafe and kitchen is because Gomez and Rivera found they had to turn away many local grocery vendors for working from home, which is against Maricopa County’s health standards.

Commercial kitchens or renting restaurant premises are the most common options for food sellers without stationary restaurants or food trucks to produce their products in accordance with the law. But space is limited, and the closest communal kitchen in south Phoenix with available space is 30 minutes away, according to Rivera.

“I know so many older women who want a business,” said Rivera. “Entrepreneurs want to sell their groceries that they are currently selling to friends and neighbors because they do not have a license. That will help them to become legitimate. “

Rivera said feedback from the mercado’s salespeople fueled the decision to furnish the kitchen and cafe not just because salespeople felt these amenities were lacking in South Phoenix, but because it created a sense of pride.

“There are people who grew up here who come back, sometimes from far away, because they like to see something happening where they grew up that wasn’t here before,” said Rivera.

The Mercado team wanted to add a freshness component to the former liquor store to bring fresh food to the community. They hope to work with local farms to sell produce and become a hub for hot meals, ingredients and a hangout for the community.

Setting the tone for future developments

Sam Gomez, founder of the South Central Mercado and the non-profit art gallery The Sagrado, plays the drums at the South Central Mercado.

Gomez worked with the project’s lead investor, Alex Gamboa, president of Phoenix-based AG 20 Investment, who was looking for a way to combine private investment with community building and charitable support. Development is usually about making a profit, and while philanthropic developments are ongoing the concept is relatively new, Gamboa said.

“I want to invest money where it’s good,” said Gamboa. “Yes, we have to get a good return, but we don’t have to hit a Grand Slam.”

The cafe and kitchen are rooted in the vision of the community, Gomez said.

The new development will provide a place to meet, provide opportunities for local business owners, and bring quality food to the neighborhood, which hasn’t been heavily invested by the developers, he said.

Developers aim to keep the money within the community, including:

  • Cooperation with a construction company in southern Phoenix.
  • Wi-Fi provided by an independent company that provides the internet infrastructure in southern Phoenix.
  • Working with Selina Martinez, Senior Lecturer at Design Empowerment PHX – a program run by The Sagrado that teaches the community about equitable design – to provide renderings.

Gomez hopes to show that it is possible to evolve to help the community and be economically viable.

“This could be a catapult to get people to think about conscious development,” said Gomez. “We can set the tone so that other projects can be inspired by it.”

The Mercado team is looking for community support to redesign the liquor store. Those interested in supporting the project can contact The Sagrado at 602-413-3357.

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

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