On a Saturday afternoon in mid-February, a steady stream of customers files in and out of El Morro Market—located on a hillcrest one mile east of El Morro National Monument—stocking up on organic produce, fresh bread, and other local and organic foods. Jaye Wilkinson, who has owned and operated the store since the summer of 2015, greets each customer. “Do you have spinach?” asks one older woman peering into the back cooler. “No,” replies Wilkinson , “But you might like the tatsoi.”
A storm is coming the following day, and for Wilkinson’s customers, many of whom live miles back on clay roads that can become impassable after even modest precipitation, this might mean not being able to leave home for a few days. This is part of life in the sparsely populated El Morro Valley, where many residents have lived off the grid for decades.
Despite the countless natural amenities, living amid the open expanses of rabbitbrush steppes, ponderosa forest, and sandstone buttes has long meant not having easy access to the kinds of ingredients Wilkinson had used in Albuquerque as a sous chef at Los Poblanos and, later, as the executive chef at Farm & Table.
After leaving the restaurant scene, she and her partner bought a twenty-two-acre farm in the valley in early 2015. Her plan was to grow food and make the rounds on the local farmers market circuit, but after meeting Kate Brown, who was looking to sell the market she had opened in 2007, Wilkinson found a new direction.
For Brown, the market had begun as a livestock and pet feed store, but shifted toward groceries and, eventually, fresh produce as she grew impatient waiting for the nearby co-op that never materialized. “The more that I thought about it, the more convinced I was we needed it,” says Brown, who has lived in the area since 1992.
The store did not do enough business for a distributors, like La Montañita’s Co-op Distribution Center, to make the four-hour round-trip drive to El Morro, so Brown would make a weekly trip to Albuquerque in her pickup truck, loaded with coolers, making eight different stops to get everything she needed to keep the store stocked. She also made occasional trips to Gallup to fill gaps. After five years, she needed a break.
Wilkinson had worked in kitchens in Seattle for twelve years before returning home to New Mexico at about the same time that Brown started making her long food-runs to Albuquerque. After five years in the back of the house, she, too, was ready for something different. “One of the reasons I moved out here was to get away from fine dining and be in a community where my knowledge and skills are more impactful,” says Wilkinson. “I’m face-to-face, not back in the kitchen.”
This has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the market as well as its most challenging. “It’s fun introducing these guys to all different things,” she says. Wilkinson often tutors customers on how to cook certain vegetables, and she’s learned who is willing to experiment and who is more apt to buy the same items on each visit. With limited shelf space and even smaller margins, this has meant having to carry only the items her customers are willing to purchase. “Why isn’t anyone buying the fennel?!” she hollers, joking.
Wilkinson picked up where Brown left off, making the weekly run to Albuquerque and two trips to Gallup. But, leveraging her connections to Albuquerque’s restaurant scene, she has streamlined the process, relying more on local farms and ranches, including ones from the El Morro area. Also, whereas Brown bought organic as much as possible, under Wilkinson, the store sells exclusively organic. “I think it’s important for people to have access to really good food,” says Wilkinson.
The store, smaller than an average living room, doesn’t have much room to grow, but with a commercial kitchen slated to be built a few miles down the road, Wilkinson hopes to host cooking classes and make prepared frozen stews, stocks, hummus, and pesto to sell in the store. Even with the long drives and small profits, Wilkinson has no regrets. She misses cooking, but is happy that the stressful sixteen-hour, back-of-the-house days are behind her. “Everyone knows me and gives me hugs,” she says about her new life.
On this Saturday afternoon, Deb Baxter, who has lived in the valley for thirty-five years, cannot help but express her gratitude. “We used to live sixty miles from the nearest mediocre whole-wheat bread,” she says emphatically. El Morro Market “has changed our community and our diet.”