With the season for chile roasting fast approaching, the Morales family knew their produce business had a problem: no home and no place to roast.
Since opening Fresh for Less Produce in Bernalillo five years ago, they managed to survive the reconstruction of U.S. Highway 550 barely 10 feet from their front door. And as an essential service, they kept operating during the COVID pandemic despite its difficulties.
In both cases, family members told the Signpost, the town government and their growing customer base helped them get through. “They treated us like family,” Jose Morales Sr. said. “We are very grateful. The people of Placitas and Bernalillo have been very supportive of us.”
Jose Morales Jr. singled out town Economic Development Director Mike Kloeppel for his work with advertising, signage and other issues during the highway project and then helping businesses navigate federal aid during the pandemic.
“He was like a guardian angel in a way when we didn’t know if we’d have to close,” the younger Morales said. “He was just looking for any way he could help us.”
But such friends in a town protective of its small businesses only helps so much when the aging building you’ve leased occupies choice real estate and is to be sold out from under you. What once was two-lane State Road 44 when the building was new in about 1993 is now six lanes of commercial strip with only a handful of vacant parcels remaining.
“We were told in June we had two months,” Morales Jr. said.
Once again supporters pitched in offering words of encouragement and scouting for new locations although moving to Rio Rancho quickly was rejected. Also involved was real estate advisor Courtney Lewis, who had kept the family apprised as the property and two adjacent parcels were rezoned earlier this year for future development.
And then Gilbert Lucero took a shopping trip and learned of Morales’s plight. “I went to the store to get avocados, and they already were packing up,” Lucero said.
Lucero soon became their new landlord. As owner of GL Trees & Stone, a source of flagstone and other materials at 102 Sheriff’s Posse Road, he offered them the half of the building used for his business. “I’ve been looking for a way to cut back for 20 years,” he said while chile roasted outside and work continued inside. The business will remain active at its current location, he added.
While the Moraleses are still working on the interior of the building, they began roasting Hatch chile on Sept. 1 with a stock of watermelons also for sale. Chile roasting typically runs into mid-October when the harvest shifts to red chile.
They hope to have their new and larger space with its fruits and vegetables, frozen chile, spices, Mexican ceramics and metal works, and other products open by the middle of this month.
“I was pretty bummed to hear they had closed,” Janet Doherty of Placitas said while waiting for her sack of green chile to be roasted on Sept. 2. Doherty said she and husband Ed were driving by on US 550 when she spotted the Fresh for Less semi trailer that had been parked behind the previous store.
The new location is about .25 miles west of the Rio Grande on the south side of US 550 behind the Starbucks recently opened on the corner at Sheriff’s Posse Road.
The family wasn’t new to the produce business with Jose Sr. having studied agricultural engineering in college in his native Mexico and working in produce related jobs in Wisconsin and southern New Mexico. The family moved to Los Lunas in 2002 and began selling produce at farmers markets.
That led to a roadside stand near Los Lunas, a now-closed store there, a store still operating in Albuquerque’s South Valley and a Santa Fe store they closed in favor of Bernalillo.
Along the way the five Morales children, Jose Jr., Sergio, Chris, Nick and Angie worked in the business while attending Los Lunas High School. Their mother Estela helps out, and uncle Jorge Morales also is part of the business handling the chile roasting on their opening weekend.
“For me, I don’t feel like I’m working in produce,” Chris Morales said. “I feel like I’m helping my Dad.”
What comes next for the other two businesses left at their former location remains to be seen. The Subway sandwich shop and the closed Pizza Hut with the attached and still-open Beauty Bar salon occupy more than 400 feet of frontage along U.S. Highway 550 just west of Camino del Pueblo.
The Subway is on the same half-acre lot as the former Fresh for Less building while the Pizza Hut property occupies a rare full acre with a For Sale sign out front. Behind them is an undeveloped and landlocked half acre that future development could connect to U.S. 550.
All three parcels are owned by the grandchildren of C.R. “Joe” and Betty Cowles of Bernalillo who purchased in 1975 for a Coronado Shopping Center that was never built, according to documents in town planning and zoning records. The heirs, with real-estate advisor Lewis acting on their behalf, requested the vacant and Subway parcels be rezoned to C-1 Commercial to match the zoning of the Pizza Hut lot and broaden potential uses.
During the March 11 Zoning Commission meeting, Lewis said there was a prospective buyer for one of the parcels for possibly a car wash or “quick service” restaurant. Lewis had not responded to a request for comment on the current situation by deadline for this edition of the Signpost.
Town staff recommended approving the changes saying they were consistent with town planning goals. Zoning commissioners agreed, and town councilors on May 8 unanimously approved the rezonings without anyone from the public coming forward for or against the action.