San Martin’s Oldest Market is New Again

Rocca’s was San Martin’s first grocer and 80 years later, it’s proving that everything old is new again.

Today the market serves an upscale clientele with the types of food that were once made out of necessity—homemade sausages, artisan wines, olive oil and locally grown vegetables.

Rocca’s Market at 13335 Monterey Highway was opened in 1927 by brothers Dan and Tom Rocca’s grandfather, Giulio. At the time, it was the first grocery store to serve the area. Since then, the store has been passed down through the generations of the Rocca family. During the recession, the market was plagued with problems that forced the brothers to try and sell the business.

“This area used to be totally farmland,” said Dan Rocca, 60. “There were walnut orchards, prune orchards, and strawberry fields everywhere. In fact all the tract homes, even where mine is, used to be a walnut orchard.”

The store started by serving farmworkers, who would come to Rocca’s, cash their checks, and purchase groceries for the week. “We did well with that,” Rocca said.

Then the farms began to disappear, replaced by housing developments as Gilroy and the surrounding area became a bedroom community for the Silicon Valley. “There were less and less workers, and business got slower,” Rocca said.

While the store struggled to adapt to changing demographics, the recession came, slowing business even more. The brothers attempted to sell the market, but the lagging economy meant buyers were scarce. The few offers they did receive were meager.

“It was tough for me,” said Rocca, who has worked in the market all his life. He did not want to sell the family business. “I love this place. I work as hard as I can every day.”

In 2011, Rocca asked his former co-worker and family friend Dan Keith to help behind the butcher counter during the holidays. “They called me over to help with the Christmas rush,” Keith, 56, said. “I came and helped and saw what was going on.” However, instead of seeing a tear-down, Keith saw an opportunity to restore and adapt the market to fit the changing times.

Keith started by updating and renovating the market.

He performed much of work himself, drawing from previous experience in general construction. “I took that meat department and cleaned it up,” Keith said. “I put those new shelves in there. I fixed the floors, I’ve had them buy the new shopping carts and the new hand baskets. They had an old [meat] cooker in there. I got rid of that. Got rid of all the wood tables, and got stainless steel. This has been over the course of the last four years.”

Keith then turned his focus toward the product, with a renewed focus on quality. “We used to sell choice grade meat,” Keith said. “Now, I’m selling prime grade meat.” Prime grade meat is the highest designation given to meats by the USDA based on a variety of factors including marbling, tenderness, and maturity.

Keith was displeased with the sausage selection at Rocca’s, “so I made my own sausage. I learned it from killing my own pigs, hunting wild boar, and I mixed sausage on my own. Now I have 15 or 18 flavors of sausage.” Rocca’s is stocked with a wide variety of artisan sausage, from Hawaiian pineapple to tomato basil.

Rocca, in turn, brought his deep knowledge of wine and spirits into the store. He started working the liquor counter at age 18, and since then has endeavored to learn as much as he could. “I can look, smell, taste, and tell you what it is,” Rocca said.

The store is now stocked with all kinds of wine, many from local wineries and often at lower prices. “You could go to the wineries and pay $40 a bottle, or you could come here and get them for $18.95,” Rocca said.

One of Keith’s favorite parts of being a butcher is the relationships he has built both with the community and among the store’s employees. “I kind of fell in love with the people, with helping them,” Keith said, as he sat outside the store one afternoon, smiling and waving to almost every car that passed. “We have a camaraderie here.”

Consequently, Rocca’s is thriving. “Last year, it made [a lot of] money,” Keith said. “[Dan’s] bookkeeping service even called and said ‘What’s happened? What’s different?’”

Rocca and Keith plan to continue updating the store. The newest addition is dedicated to merchandise made by local artisans. “It’s a little boutiquey thing, y’know,” Keith said, as he showed off the shelves packed with garlic sauces and other local crafts.

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