BY MICHAEL SCANLON
For the Bulletin
With the ink still drying on his bank loan contract, Toucan Market owner Bob Baur was sending out a letter to let customers know the locally owned Las Cruces grocery store is here to stay.
“We’re back on solid ground,” Baur said Monday, Oct. 1. Partners Baur and Richard Cole announced in August that the market would close after 13 years in business.
But with fresh financing from Pioneer Bank, some new ideas and a different ownership structure, everyone at Toucan is looking to the future. Baur will continue in the business without Cole as a partner.
“He will no longer be my business partner,” Baur said. “We couldn’t have started Toucan Market without Richard and Christy (Cole’s wife). It was wonderful they were here to get us started. We’re been partners for 13 years and they’re ready to retire.”
Cole said he would not comment on the business, since he’s no longer involved, but he said he and his wife plan to stay in Las Cruces.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Cole said. “We love it here. We’ve got a nice place, and we plan to stay.”
The store is located at the corner of Locust Street and University Avenue in the Pan Am Plaza shopping center.
While Cole brought his expertise in business and finance to Toucan, Baur came in with 30 years’ experience in the retail grocery business. His son Rob Baur, Toucan’s store manager, worked 15 years in the grocery business before joining Toucan.
Word that Toucan would stay open was welcome news for loyal customers, local vendors – Toucan carries more than 100 local products – as well as the store’s 36 employees.
“It was very scary,” employee Donna Villarreal said of the news that Toucan would close. “I’ve been here since they opened. This is a small, family-run business, and they give benefits. It wasn’t only going to affect us, it was going to affect all our local vendors. We support a lot of people here. It would have been a huge loss to this community.
Toucan pays 75 percent of employees’ health insurance and offers paid time off and other perks. Villarreal said the prospect of losing her insurance coverage caused a lot of anguish until workers heard the news that the store would stay open.
“I was dancing, jumping up in the air, telling every customers that walks in the door that we’re staying open, saying please tell your friends, put it on Facebook. I’ve been doing that nonstop for the last week,” Villarreal, 59, said. “I’m getting too old to be changing jobs.”
When the store was reducing its inventory in anticipation of closing, the stock levels drew down, but Baur said the store was about 80 percent restocked.
He said he removed a gondola next to the deli department and eliminated slow-selling products throughout the store to make room for tables where people can sit and eat.
“I’m not a restaurant, but I can put in five or six little bistro tables so the students can come over here and sit down,” Baur said. “No menu, no nothing. We do sell packaged sandwiches, we do have packaged soups, chips, apples. They can get whatever they want and have a seat back there, get a Coke. We’re not doing to be a restaurant, but it could be a nice little gathering place.
“That’s been probably the most asked-for thing from our customers since we opened,” Baur said. “’Why don’t you put in a place to sit down?’ I’ve heard that probably 1,000 times.”
In addition to the partnership, the store also was hit hard by the 2008 recession and by the influx of corporate competitors – Sprouts Farmers Market, Natural Grocers, Walmart’s Neighborhood Market, for example – staffing cuts at New Mexico State University and other things.
Dissolving the partnership so the business no longer has to support two owners was just a part of the puzzle that will bring the business back to long-term health, Baur said.
“It’s not just one thing,” he said. “I can’t control how many people work at the university. I’m never going to stop the city from bringing in another corporation. But what I can do is lower my overhead and keep my focus.”
Store manager Rob Baur was busy checking inventory and moving local products to more prominent space inside the store. Some were going to the front of the store. The first door in the beer cooler was filled with local craft beers.
“We don’t charge local vendors to put their products on our shelves,” he said. “That’s free of charge. We’ll try it. If we don’t sell it, we might have to mark it down or do something else with it. But we always give local vendors an opportunity to sell their stuff in our store.”
Michael Scanlon is a freelance reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.