In 1992, Adrian Darimont and his family began buying up parts of the old 3C Ranch in Oracle, a small mountain town about 30 miles north of Tucson.
It took nine separate transactions, but the Darimonts today own about 550 acres of the sprawling former ranch and, in a given month, run 20 to 50 head of cattle there. For Darimont, 55, a Tucson real estate broker, the quaint Oracle retreat “was where I wanted to retire to eventually.”
He never could have imagined that his plans in Oracle would amount to more than just retirement.
But, earlier this year, Merle “Red” and Elida Hildreth, longtime merchants and landowners in town, wanted to sell their holdings off American Avenue, the main drag (the only one, really) through Oracle.
The deal was to include a corner store, the old Oracle Inn Steakhouse, the Village Square retail center and a few other properties.
In failing health, the Hildreths wanted to sell all of the properties at once, preferably to a single buyer.
“I couldn’t pass it up,” said Darimont, who, along with his wife Kari and sons Nick and Justin, took the plunge.
Millions of dollars later, the Oracle Inn Steakhouse and the Oracle Market (formerly Hildreth’s) have been returned to prime form.
The steakhouse re-opened last July 9. And, after being shuttered for nearly two years, the market re-opened the Monday before Christmas, Dec. 22.
Most people in the small town, once a hub of activity that owed its livelihood to mine in neighboring San Manuel (it closed in 1999), might not even recognize Darimont.
In fact, longtime Oracle resident Charlie Clark spent most of the morning on Dec. 22 introducing the developer to customers at the market.
“Is this a nice store or what?” Darimont said as he greeted one of the many customers who entered that morning.
The polished linoleum floors gleamed under the bright fluorescent lights. The shelves were fully stocked.
Darimont contracted with General Distributors Inc., of New Mexico, to run the operation. He even leased the house on the hill above the store to its new manager, Glen Merriman, who’s been in the grocery business for 46 years.
“This is awesome,” said Oracle resident Mary Burns. “Thank God we have a store. Thank you, Lord.”
No sooner had Merriman taken a seat near the store’s coffee machine than did a customer ask him to grind a pound of fresh beef.
The morning buzz came despite the fact that store operators hadn’t advertised the grand opening, Merriman said.
Funny how that works, Darimont chuckled to his wife.
“We opened on a Wednesday,” Kari Darimont recalled of the restaurant’s opening, “thinking it wouldn’t be too busy.”
Instead, 500 people showed up for meals that first day.
“To me it’s a destination restaurant,” Adrian Darimont said of the steakhouse.
He and his family, especially son Nick, 22, who did the renovations, took great pains to preserve the old-time Western look of the place.
“It was a lot of weird construction,” Nick said. “But interesting.”
The 13,000-square-foot building, owned and operated by Nick’s older brother, Justin, 24, absolutely hums most nights, serving up prime rib, steaks and burgers to hordes of customers from throughout the so-called “tri-community” area — San Manuel, Mammoth and Oracle.
The place draws its fair share of SaddleBrooke residents as well, Adrian Darimont said.
Plus, once a month, it’s the only restaurant anywhere — in Tucson or points beyond —serving a full, authentic German menu.
“You don’t want to lose all this,” the elder Darimont said, motioning to the restaurant’s thick wood beams and adobe and brick walls littered with memorabilia and Oracle-related kitsch.
In the 1980s, when the San Manuel mine boomed, Oracle had probably three markets and seven eateries, according to Charlie Clark, whose family began its freight business there in the late 1800s.
After the mine closed, the town had a pair of dollar stores, two Italian restaurants, two Circle K gas stations and hardly anything else, Clark said.
“Oracle is rediscovering itself, re-inventing itself,” he added. “And it’s guys like Adrian who are leading the way.”
Darimont shrugs off the praise.
“Without my mom and dad, I couldn’t do this,” he said recently. “Without my kids, my family, I couldn’t do this.”
And others, he added, have paved the way.
The Oracle True Value Hardware store opened in 2007 and kept a number of folks shopping local, he said. Other small business owners in town held down slots along American Avenue as well.
Eventually, Darimont plans to refurbish and lease space at the Village Square.
“That’s my next project,” he said. “And that’s going to be a big one.”
As if the others weren’t.
The corner store lot was full by lunchtime Dec. 22. The registers sang.
Adrian Darimont and his family have refurbished and re-opened for business two major Oracle landmarks:
Re-opened Dec. 22, 2008
760 E. American Ave.
Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily
Oracle Inn Steakhouse
Re-opened July 9, 2008
305 E. American Ave.
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; JD’s Sports Bar & Lounge (in same building) open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
The Darimonts’ next project will involve renovating and leasing store space at the Village Square retail center, which stands on the south side of American Avenue on the way into town.