Grass-roots grocers

Grass-roots grocers

A yellow raincoat-clad Natalie Flanagan, 3, ran up to the deli
case inside Rocca’s Market and squealed with amusement.

What’s that?

asked Tom Rocca looking down at a sizable pound of chorizo
molded into a giant pig. The porcine sculpture even had fake eyes,
which stared back at Flanagan as she pressed her face against the
glass.
A yellow raincoat-clad Natalie Flanagan, 3, ran up to the deli case inside Rocca’s Market and squealed with amusement.

“What’s that?” asked Tom Rocca looking down at a sizable pound of chorizo molded into a giant pig. The porcine sculpture even had fake eyes, which stared back at Flanagan as she pressed her face against the glass.

“I just do that for the kids.”

Going the extra distance and adding the element of personal touch is the name of the game for Rocca’s Market at 13335 Monterey Hwy. in San Martin, where Tom Rocca identifies customers by name and their favorite foods.

“I’m shopping based on my stomach today,” said 60-year-old Mark Mooney, a 31-year patron.

Hands in pockets, Mooney gazed meditatively at the

old-fashioned, cut and wrap deli counter inside the historic 1920s grocery gem.

The store’s cornucopia of

top-notch meats is a community attraction, drawing South County shoppers with flavored Italian sausage, stuffed pork chops, chicken cordon bleu, prime rib roast, four types of marinated

tri-tip steak and in-house ground burger for the better part of a century.

“We’ve got an open aging counter,” said Tom. “Not a bacteria frappe tray – the little Styrofoam and cellophane package.”

Through corporate competition to recession setbacks to fluctuating consumer demands, the nostalgic Rocca’s has held its ground – surviving time’s weathering while maintaining the neighborly charm of “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Leave it to Beaver.”

The signs are hand-drawn – like the improvised Ben & Jerry’s ice cream poster used to advertise grass-fed beef in the window of this mom-and-pop store with an eclectic inventory.

“How about garlic bread, a green salad and a small bowl of spaghetti?” suggested Tom from the other side of the deli, weighing and wrapping a

hand-cut New York strip before handing it to Mooney.

Tom said he knows what his customers want, and what day of the week they want it.

“Sometimes I have to remind the husband that the wife has already been in,” he laughed.

Founded in 1927 after Tom’s great-great grandfather Giulio Rocca emigrated from Italy, Rocca’s Market is a living family album; a nonconformist time capsule with a grass-roots groove imparting a provincial homegrown flavor to San Martin.

Tom still carries crisp mental images of arranging produce while his father, Julius Rocca, trimmed lettuce – a memory that conjured bittersweet emotions since Julius passed away three years ago.

Indicating to several dated photographs depicting a rustic Rocca’s as it was in the ’30s, Tom pointed to one snapped in 1965. It showed the entire family sitting down to dinner, a photo Tom joked was the family’s “mafia picture.” It included John Bonfante, who married into the Rocca family and later started Nob Hill Foods in Gilroy.

“Do I have Italian pride?” said Tom as he chatted about his heritage. “Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean I ride to work in a gondola.”

For the Rocca’s, family pride and work pride are synonymous.

Today the store is run by third-generation descendants; namely Tom, who is tall, articulate and personable; and his brother Dan, a wily personality who is bearded and has one pierced ear. The two assumed responsibility for the store in 1994.

After pointing to his name tag, which Dan said was 20 years old and the second to grace his green apron since he started working at age 12, he nodded in the direction of Tom.

“That’s no gentleman. That’s my brother.”

Together, the siblings make grocery shopping less of an errand, and more of an experience.

As 5 p.m. approached and customers began filing into the store – most of whom Tom knew and greeted by name – Natalie’s dad Jeramy Flanagan, 29, said he visits Rocca’s to satisfy chorizo and marinated tri-tip cravings.

“It’s way better than Costco’s,” he said, semidistracted as Natalie tugged on his hand and pleaded for goldfish crackers.

Though its mantra is

old-school, Tom said Rocca’s is doing its best to adapt with consumer demands while still upholding the down-to-earth outlook that makes it winsome.

From self-serve honey flowing from a spigot, to locally made cookie treats for horses, to artisan preserves personally delivered all the way from Clearlake Oaks by the Pickle Man – a former San Martin resident – it’s a little pinch of this and a little pinch of that.

Exotic novelties such as alligator cutlets, buffalo and ostrich have also been known to appear in the selection.

“Alligator does what I expect it to do,” said Tom of the stuff, which he said is a common delicacy in the South but not so much in San Martin. “It’s the novelty of people throwing parties, and saying, ‘hey guess what you just ate?’ ”

Ray Escudero, 40, said going to the store is a family tradition.

“It’s convenient,” said Escudero. “I like to keep business in our little town.”

He said he raised all three of his children on Rocca’s meat.

At one point, Dan said all four of his brothers worked together in the store: Michael, 59; Dan, 53; Tom, 49; and Paul, 42.

Tom said a favorite memory is when the four would ride their bikes up and down store aisles after hours.

“Mike would beat me up, I beat up Tom, Tom would beat up Paul … then Paul moved away to Pennsylvania,” said Dan, his voice trailing. He grinned playfully.

As he showed off a meticulously organized inventory of local boutique and bigger wine labels – another popular feature for the modest venture – Dan shrugged his shoulders and said if he doesn’t like it, Rocca’s doesn’t carry it.

“I’m cheaper than any of the chain stores,” he said. “Local wineries are good to me, and I’m good to them.”

When the store quieted down around 6:30 p.m., Tom leaned against the checkout stand and looked around.

He said Rocca’s hasn’t changed in 50 years, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

“I show up to work and I swear, it’s still black and white. It’s like living in a movie. It’s our little corner of Mayberry,” he said.

Still, for the likable folksy enterprise – a rare pedigree of business model in the 21st century – Tom was candid about the struggle of surviving in the shadow of Goliath supermarkets.

“I want to thank all of the customers I’ve served, my father served and his grandfather served,” he said.

He added everyone is welcome as a friend and neighbor.

“Taking care of the community in an honorable way, it’s pretty irreplaceable. It’s in our DNA. This is what we do.”

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