(Pop-Up at Soboba)

When the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold and folks were told to shelter in place and be careful when going out only for essential services, it became clear that precautions needed to be taken to ensure the well-being of Soboba Reservation residents.

The idea for the store was approved by Tribal Council after a Sysco representative approached council when the COVID-19 crisis first arose and said it might be a good alternative to shopping for food and toilet paper at local supermarkets. Sysco is a longtime vendor for the Soboba Tribal Preschool, Noli Indian School, Soboba Springs Golf Course and the Soboba Casino Resort.

“They understand the situation and what we are trying to do and will notify us with items we might like to offer,” said Steve Lopez, Parks and Recreation Department Sports Coordinator. “They have since started to serve Morongo and some other reservations that are doing something similar to what we have here. They share what is working at other places; it’s been great.”

Elders and other vulnerable populations were especially hesitant to leave the reservation to get much-needed supplies. Thankfully, the Sports Complex had the space and staff to accommodate the popular plan. Organization was smooth and rapid as many departments worked together to transition the sports complex’s gymnasium into the Soboba Marketplace at the end of March.

“Not only does this makeshift market allow our members to access food and supplies that are scarce, it also allows them to limit their possible exposure to the virus by not having to search for these things out in the Valley,” Lopez said. “It is a collaborative effort from our staff here at Parks and Recreation, along with the help of IT, accounting and staff from the preschool.”

The Information Technology department provides support on the point-of-sale system by uploading all products and pricing and the accounting department keeps track of inventory and provides staff to help with the check-out process. Some preschool employees also provide support in helping customers check out. Parks and Recreation staff fulfill customer orders and load their vehicles and are also responsible for keeping items well stocked.

Lopez said the point-of-sale system that has been used at Soboba’s annual Charity Golf Tournament was able to be easily modified to accommodate the more than 120 items that can be purchased at the market. Several platform hand trucks were borrowed from Soboba Casino Resort’s shipping and receiving department to be used as shopping carts. Staff walks around the tables with the shopper(s), using a checklist of what gets placed on the hand truck. After the checklist has been used to ring up the shopper’s purchases, the platform truck is wheeled to their vehicle for items to be loaded. Lopez said all staff has been 100% on board with making this work even though it’s not what any of them normally do.

“I’m proud of all the staff for being able to do what the Tribe needed them to do,” he said. “All shoppers are one-on-one with a staff member to limit exposure and limit the amount of hands touching products. We keep our staff in gloves and masks to be safe and hopefully that makes everyone feel a little bit safer.” Lopez and his co-workers, Jennifer Garcia (activities director) and Vanessa San Vicente (administrative assistant), compile the weekly order.

“Once we have the list together, I place the order with Sysco, who have been great to work with,” he said. “We stock a wide range of items including meats (beef, pork, chicken), cereals, pastas, bread, eggs, milk, fruit, rice, beans, a small selection of frozen items like pizzas and tamales, as well as toilet paper, gloves and household cleaning items.”

Lopez said the frozen items have been helpful to have on hand with all kids home from school right now, making it easier on parents to not to have to cook three meals for them every day.

Sysco’s truck delivers the order each Monday and it is inventoried, sorted and put out for purchasing before the market opens on Wednesday morning. Most items are sold in bulk such as 20-pound cans of beans, 25-pound bags of flour and a flat of 30 eggs allowing shoppers to make less frequent trips. The bulk discounts are passed on to the shoppers, who can purchase items at cost.

“I came the first time it was open and stocked up,” said Katherine Duro, whose brother, William Meza Jr. was also shopping on the morning of May 13. “This is great because it keeps me from having to go out into town for what I need.”

Garcia assisted Doris Placencia during her visit while San Vicente helped other family members. “I like it here – it keeps me from having to go elsewhere and they have good quality items at bulk prices,” Placencia said. “Plus, they do everything for us, which is pretty cool.”

Garcia said visitors are steady at about 60 per week, throughout the day, with many repeat customers. The market started stocking only essentials at first but as multiple requests for additional items came in, such as sweets, those were included for sale.

Lopez said most items are shelf stable but eggs, milk, produce and other more perishable items are so popular they are constantly replenished, ensuring that all items are fresh. He said it’s important that they don’t have any waste.

Soboba Marketplace is currently operating on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the first two hours reserved for Tribal Elders. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., shoppers can be other tribal members, reservation residents and Soboba employees who are actively working.

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