Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market

By Dan Sorenson –

First Market in over 40 Years
Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market

Downtown Tucson has trendy restaurants and bars galore, live performance theaters, coffee houses, museums, tattoo parlors, art galleries and a legendary music store and wig shop. But there hasn’t been a grocery store there for years.

Now there’s one as diverse as the rest of the place – with gourmet olives, Wonder Bread, Tucson microbrews and Arizona wines, fresh oysters, crayons and brake fluid. And a deli, coffee bar, house-made pastries, fresh produce, meats and seafood, a salad bar, and a thousand other things that one wouldn’t expect to find under the roof of a former barber shop.

For those getting breakfast, lunch or dinner at the deli counter, there’s seating inside near the front window, several umbrella cafe tables on the sidewalk outside, and – just past the 16-tap draft beer and wine counter – a covered patio seating area in the rear.

Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market – aka JGDM or, more commonly, Gibson’s – can’t have it all. But co-owner/manager Paul Cisek said they’re trying to squeeze in as much of what the surrounding community wants as possible.

“The whole premise: Figure out who the demographic is. Some of everything. Gourmet, organic, traditional, private label.

We are challenged to meet the needs of middle-lower income residents,” Cisek said. “That’s why we take EBT (food stamps) and that’s why we have the private label and the moderately priced stuff – so we are inclusive. It’s interesting because downtown is becoming a rich man’s playground, but the people who live all around downtown aren’t wealthy. We are the fifth-poorest city in the nation.”

Gibson’s is at 11 S. Sixth Ave., sandwiched in the middle of a block bookended by an old-fashioned newsstand and a tattoo parlor, in what was once Johnny Gibson’s Barber Shop. Gibson, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart World War II combat medic and body builder-turned barber and longtime Tucson fixture, died in 2010 at age 86 after cutting hair downtown for six decades. His family still owns much of the block where Gibson cut hair and kept an unflinching eye on Tucson for so many years.

For many of those years, Gibson was almost as well-known as the desert boomtown’s mayors and car dealers – and probably better liked than most. Above the market’s deli counter are giant black and white photographic prints of Gibson the bodybuilder striking muscleman poses. If the photos were of someone else, it might come off as camp in such an urban setting. But anyone who lived here during Gibson’s time would half expect to hear him bark from the grave, “Drop down and give me 20!” at anyone entertaining that thought.

Despite the retro roots of Gibson’s, its marketing plan is modern, using two-way social media to stay in touch with customers. A recent Facebook entry: “Many of you have asked….and we have listened! Vegan cupcakes, vegan brownies and vegan cookies will be in the bakery Tuesday morning! Two brownies, three or four cupcake varieties and three or four cookie choices! Thanks for the suggestions…KEEP ’EM COMING!!”

The employee-customer vibe in the store is decidedly upbeat and accommodating.

“We made a huge investment on this place,” Cisek said, “$1.1 million in leasehold investments, equipment and stock. The folks at the Alliance Bank were very, very helpful in getting us built. We kind of bet the farm on it. We’re not going to let poor customer service sink us. It’ll have to be something else.”

Despite a long series of obstacles that delayed the opening and caused a lot of sleepless nights (how about having a brand new and very costly compressor that chilled the salad bar, meat and seafood counters die in late July for a challenge?), Cisek said he’s having a good time. “Part of the fun is staying open until midnight. That means I’m in here until 2 am. But the 10 o’clock people are fun. I’m an old guy and I’m energized by it. I’m a Motown guy. But I turn that off and at that time I turn on Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga.

“The average downtown person is a night timer (with) some propensity for biking or walking,” Cisek said. And that’s a good thing, he said, because daytime parking is a struggle. But that’s also an opportunity for the store to offer deliveries – whether to help customers who bought more than they anticipated carrying or to deliver call-in orders.

Cisek said the market is a partnership between two couples, Cisek and wife Christi as operating managers, and financial partners John and Kelly Abbott, the couple that now owns the Cisek family’s former enterprise, the Rincon Market. After selling Rincon Market to the Abbotts several years ago, the Ciseks, restricted by a non-compete clause, operated a market in Tubac, outside the non-compete area. It was during that five years, Cisek said, that they learned what they needed to know to tackle a downtown Tucson market.

One of the things that came out of it was the formation of a side business, Arizona Market Makers, a small-store grocery distribution company owned by the Ciseks.

Changes in the grocery business have made it increasingly difficult for extremely small stores to stock their shelves, Cisek said. “That’s why you don’t see any small grocery stores any more. We have to have enough volume to buy out of the Bashas’ warehouse in Chandler.” Arizona Market Makers, in turn, distributes groceries to smaller markets in Southern Arizona.

“It’s really about being serious about serving an area that doesn’t have a good food source, No. 1, and, No. 2, figuring out what the hell people want. That’s why we have Wonder Bread and really good bread from a really good bakery. And that’s why we have Food Club (peanut butter) at $2.09 and not Skippy at $3.29. That’s why you’ll see organic produce” – and crayons and the brake fluid.

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