Major Market Boosts Capacity to Deliver Quality Food
When Darrell Tsabetsaye began his vision for a fresh food market on the Zuni Reservation in 1988, there were few options for just what he had in mind: A self-sustaining food resource for fruits, vegetables, and meats that would not require a long drive to Gallup and that would ultimately improve the health and wellness of the Zuni community. Now, after multiple stops and starts, a construction-slowing pandemic, and new funding and partnerships, that vision is continuing to become a reality.
Meeting a Need
Tsabetsaye explains that his idea for a healthy food grocery store was sparked by a set of circumstances that are common throughout Indian Country: High rates of diabetes and high blood pressure, a lack of access to fresh foods and produce, and yet a steady stream of high-calorie sports drinks and processed foods readily available at nearby convenience stores.
At the same time, for the community of Zuni, there was a large influx of contract monies coming in from temporary workers on federal projects. Yet those dollars would soon dwindle, being spent off reservation. There was no government system in place to combat the effect on the local economy, no large-scale approach to improving food systems, and no private sector growth.
“It was really hurting us,” Tsabetsaye says. “I started looking at ways to get rid of what was going on, and ways to model eating healthy. The void was always there.”
Stops and Starts
Tsabetsaye says he ultimately holed himself up in a room and began developing a business plan. He obtained some startup funding, and from there, he and his wife “bootstrapped everything” to open “Major Market.” Times were lean. He says he and his wife drew a salary of only $50 every two weeks, and prioritized all funds to pay their staff of seven and keep a consistent inventory. “It was our humble beginning,” he says. Still, the business grew over time to become a full-line grocery, bakery, deli and gasoline station. Through 2004, it was the only Native-owned corporation in Zuni and the highest-paying private employer.
Then, in 2005, the store’s lease became up, the terms to resign were unfavorable, and Tsabetsaye made the hard decision to close. Tsabetsaye and his family pursued other ventures as their family grew. Still, the vision of providing a source of healthy, fresh foods for the Zuni community continued.
In 2020, Tsabetsaye again sat down to formulate a new business plan. He purchased an acre and a half, and using that as leverage, he developed a business model of selling organic fresh products. From there, plans took hold for the second Market Market, a community-centered grocery and coffee shop dedicated to providing fresh produce, traditional Native American ingredients, non-perishable foods, standard staples, purified water, and Starbucks® coffee.
Tsabetsaye sought funding through the Rural Community Assistance Corporation, which made an initial investment to break ground on a 6,000 square-foot store. The store reopened with 28 employees, and the Tsabetsaye family was starting to see some cash flow.
But then, more setbacks: COVID-19 hit during the reopening year, which affected revenue and put operations at risk. While Major Market was aiming to be a resource for fresh foods, the pandemic revealed it wasn’t enough. Tsabetsaye says COVID-19 shed light on further weaknesses in the local food supply, including an extreme shortage of nonperishable dry goods, prepared frozen foods, and freezer-grade fresh foods. “No one could have anticipated COVID,” he says. But Tsabetsaye continued on, operating at limited capacity through delays in construction and the community shutdowns.
Major Market persevered, and through the relationship with RCAC and other funders and ongoing outreach, Tsabetsaye was introduced to other entities that shared his vision and wanted to see the store succeed. They were able to build a funding network and create new and innovative lending terms. Now, as the nation is reopening and restrictions have begun to lift, Major Market is in a position to not only keep the doors open, but to continue pursuing that heathy food vision.
Support from First Nations
Throughout this journey, Tsabetsaye says he has remained committed to being a self-sustaining resource for food, and to him, this means a protein supply. He envisions an onsite butchering operation, where customers can get fresh pork, beef, and seafood. He explains that such meat has not been readily available for people in Zuni, and obtaining any kind of meat can mean long drives to large chain grocery stores where the meat that is available is pre-packaged and often not the highest quality. Having good meat in the right ratios of fat and with the proper marbling are needed not just for good health, he explains, but for many of the traditions and events that make up Zuni culture.
While the new store currently is able to offer a limited protein supply to consumers by purchasing wholesale and then preparing select cuts to order, Tsabetsaye says they could do more with additional funding. Through the network of partners, he says he learned of First Nations and the new Forging Last-Mile Protein Supply Chains in Indian Country project.
The First Nations project was created to lay the groundwork to increase consumer access to locally-produced meat from sustainably-managed livestock. According to Jackie Francke, First Nations Vice President of Programs & Administration, these models can create more community control and reduce the “last mile” of food supply chains between Native food producers and Native families.
As part of First Nations’ outreach, Jackie and Mannie Encinias from Trilogy Beef made a site visit to Major Market to assess the operation and plan for next steps. “When Jackie and Mannie and another group started formulating ideas, we realized that with certified butchers we could eventually make a Native American slaughterhouse that Native Ranchers could sell to. We could slaughter and package the meat here, and market both options out to the community,” he says.
Indeed, with funding through this project, Tsabetsaye can now develop a butchering program with benefits that are two-fold: One, it provides a revenue stream for local ranchers, as well as cut-to-order meats from a high-quality source, while keeping revenue directed into the community. At the same time, a local butchering operation with a means to certify butchers provides opportunities for career development in a growing field where demand is great.
More information about the butchering certification onsite training will be featured in the next issue of Indian Giver.
Food, Family, and Education
Meanwhile, the day-to-day operations of the store continue strong. While the store has always been a family-focused effort, Tsabetsayes’ children were little or not yet born when the store first opened in 1988. Today, the majority owners are Tsabetsaye and his wife Roselia, and the management team consists of their two sons, grandson, and daughter, who all bring different skillsets and expertise to the store.
Tsabetsayes’ oldest son, who has an MBA, heads up IT and back-office operations, including finances and point-of-purchase technology. He is also the store’s “solar guy,” Tsabetsaye says, adding that funding is being pursued to install solar panels in the store, which is already hardwired for solar, thus reducing its carbon footprint.
Major Market is now a local hub for fresh food, as well as a source for nutrition and culinary education. The store features a full kitchen, where Tsabetsayes’ other son, a trained chef, prepares healthy packaged foods available to go, and provides live cooking demos. Ingredients for all the meals are displayed together so customers can see how easily ingredients can go together. Tsabetsayes’ daughter, who is health and nutrition conscious, prepares fruit and vegetable smoothies, which customers can enjoy as they shop or visit in the coffee shop.
Tsabetsaye explains that the store’s role is not just to be a provider of healthy food, but a resource for understanding why that food is so important. “It’s an education process,” he says. “It’s a whole combination of information, communication, and demonstration. We’re sharing the positives of why we need to change our eating habits and our mentality if we want to live longer.”
Tsabetsaye says he looks forward to continuing work with First Nations and other entities in their pursuit to increase access to fresh produce and protein.
To learn more about Major Market, visit https://majormarketinc.net/ or https://www.clover.com/online-ordering/major-market-inc-zuni