Photo courtesy Azukar/Sandra Flores
Azukar Coffee could have been a destination along the light rail extension that will eventually extend from downtown along Central Avenue into South Phoenix, ending at Baseline Road.
Instead, the coffee shop that showcased Mexican culture and the neighborhood’s entrepreneurial spirit joins nearly two dozen other businesses as a casualty of the light rail construction and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a Sept. 2 post on Instagram, Azukar Coffee, which opened in 2017, announced that it had permanently closed.
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For four years, a black banner above Azukar’s doorway welcomed neighbors and visitors with the words, “Cafecito. Cultura. Vida.” printed in blue letters. Those words — coffee, culture and life, in Spanish — meant community for Sandra Flores, the coffee shop’s owner.
“For me coffee means sharing a small moment of joy with others. When an abuelo or abuela tells you, ‘Let’s have a coffee,’ they’re telling you, ‘Let’s talk. Let’s share a moment together,’” Flores told the Arizona Mirror.
The coffee shop, in a small building on the east side of Central Avenue just north of Baseline Road, quickly became a gathering place for the neighborhood. Flores regularly shared Azukar’s patio, which is decorated with three murals, one from local artist La Morena. Azukar put up a community altar during Día de Muertos and hosted outdoor yoga classes, open mic on some evenings, and a Saturday morning market where other entrepreneurs sold jewelry and handmade crafts.
Past the dark blue door, Flores often shuffled in front of a steaming espresso machine, making horchata cold brew or an oat milk latte with mesquite syrup. One of her daughters sometimes keyed in orders next to a display of fresh pan dulce under a glass dome.
The construction of a 5.5-mile light rail expansion by Valley Metro that began in October 2019 changed the neighborhood, complicated access to Azukar and diverted customers away from the road that has historically been the main way in and out of South Phoenix.
Program provides cash assistance to businesses on Valley Metro construction path
Valley Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose said Azukar was one of the businesses to recently benefit from a new grant assistance program available to businesses harmed by Valley Metro light rail construction projects.
The $2.3 million program launched in March with funds from the City of Phoenix and the nonprofit Phoenix Community Development & Investment Corporation.
The program has so far distributed almost $253,200 to 50 businesses affected by two light rail construction projects — the South Phoenix extension and the northwest Valley addition.
The program, called the Small Business Financial Assistance Program, distributes funds in two categories, one of up to $3,000 and a second one of up to $9,000.
Of the 50 businesses that have benefited, 46 of them are in South Phoenix, Foose said.
Valley Metro also provides support with marketing, signage, business consulting and other business-related issues to those impacted by light rail construction projects.
Flores said construction was an added obstacle to a difficult business climate: The pandemic also made it difficult for her to plan events, which were an important source of customers for the small business.
22 businesses near Central Ave in South Phoenix have closed
According to the city’s economic development department, there were 269 businesses along the Central Avenue corridor south of the Salt River between 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street in November 2020.
Last month, there were 243 businesses, including four new ones. That means that 22 businesses shut down in less than a year’s time.
Eric Toll, spokesman for the city’s community and economic development department, said it’s complicated to measure whether the closures are due to light rail construction or other difficulties arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. But he said the pandemic and resulting economic downturn has likely had a greater impact than light rail construction.
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Toll pointed out that businesses south of the Salt River in the light rail construction corridor had a closure rate of 11% last November, but in August 2021 it was 2%.
“The (business) closure rate has improved from the worst of the pandemic last year,” he said.
Toll added that businesses facing challenges can visit the city’s Small Business Toolbox online or call the small business support team, known as TeamPHX, at (602) 262-5040.
‘We cannot bear to see our community in shambles’
The iconic row of palm trees that lined the middle of Central Avenue are gone. In its place, orange traffic cones and barriers and temporary signage disrupt the flow. There’s no longer a turn lane, and left turns aren’t allowed on some major intersections, as construction workers and heavy machinery dig up the road to relocate buried utility lines.
According to Valley Metro, this phase of the construction is the most disruptive.
“There’s lots of lane restrictions,” Foose said. “It’s the dirtiest. It is the loudest. It’s the most disruptive phase of construction.”
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The timeline to finish the utility relocation phase is by mid-2022, she said. In 2022, crews will begin stalling tracks and the project is expected to be completed in 2024.
For Flores, looking out to a torn up street that was once the main artery of South Phoenix but was now an obstacle for businesses yearning to thrive became an unbearable sight.
“We cannot bear to see our community in shambles with construction, so Azukar is closed,” she wrote in a post on the small business’s Instagram page. “We still have a lot of love to give and we look forward to a future.”
Foose of Valley Metro lamented the closure of Azukar.
“It’s certainly sad news and we want to take care of all the businesses that we can, and this news hits our team as well. It’s not something we want to see, and we want to do all that we can to take care of our businesses,” she said.
For Flores, Azukar was her first major business venture. She and her husband used to rent bounce houses occasionally, but Flores wanted to create a space where her neighborhood could gather, connect and improve. Flores landed on the idea of a coffee shop as the means of making that a reality, she said.
“I spent all my life in South Phoenix,” she said. “I wanted to see the community improve, so I put together my passions to improve the place where I am and share something I enjoy and unite people.”
It took Flores nearly three years of work to open Azukar — nearly as long as the coffee shop was open.
“I had to learn fast. It was intense, but very beautiful,” she said.
Flores didn’t share any specifics on what she’ll do in the future. But her passion for building a community space and her vision for improving her neighborhood that pushed her to open Azukar remains, she said.
“I’m so grateful for the community that supported us. They brought life into the business,” she said. “I’m happy because, at the end of it all, I know Azukar was an inspiration for a lot of people.”
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