To tell the story of Terra, I have to tell my story, at least as it relates to how the business got started and why the store operates in the way that it does. I think you will find it an interesting read and well worth the time.
- Stephen Trinkaus, Owner & General Manager
FROM JUNK FOOD TO ORGANIC FOOD
If you travelled back in time to the early 1990’s to seek me out, you’d never guess that the guy you met would someday own an organic grocery store. I was working towards a Latin American Studies major at WWU. I aspired to go to grad school, and later work in international trade. I spoke fluent Spanish and had spent a couple of years living and traveling in Latin America. I also ate the Standard American Diet (a.k.a. SAD), in other words, lots of processed food. To put myself through college, I worked for Domino’s Pizza and often survived on over-cooked pies and cancelled orders that we could take home.
I worked summers at Bellingham Frozen Foods, a food processing business that used to sit on Bellingham’s waterfront. Because I spoke fluent Spanish, I was often called on to translate for the many Mexican workers who worked there.
In 1991, the great migrant farm worker organizer and union leader Cesar Chavez spoke at WWU. Through the efforts of local groups who stood in solidarity with his cause, I learned not only about the social injustices suffered by migrant workers, but also about the high incidence of birth defects, certain cancers, and other degenerative diseases common in the migrant population due to their exposure to synthetic agricultural chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.). When I thought about what I didn’t know about the lives of the migrant workers I had befriended, I felt motivated to commit to an all-organic die, which was a drastic change for me!
As many have found, when one begins to question the dominant assumptions of society, one’s life begins to change on many fronts. I found my desire to work in international business supplanted with the goal of working in organic agriculture. I forfeited my comfortable rental to live off-the-grid in a school bus that I converted into my home. I began to grow my own food and live closer to the land. I got a job at Omega Nutrition, a local company best known for pressing organic flax seed oil. My journey into the world of sustainability and organics had begun!
PASSION, BUSINESS, AND “SUCCESS”
People who start businesses usually do because they are passionate about the product or service they offer, for the profit potential, or both. The pioneers of the organic movement generally fall in the passion category. However, one aspect of being in business is that when the business grows, the person or people who started it end up engaged in very different jobs than the ones they did initially. For better or for worse, I have found this true in my business as well. Now I spend a lot of time dealing with finance, marketing, strategic planning, managing the managers, and such. Formerly, I spent more time doing the things I loved most - working directly with farmers and talking to customers.
When I worked for Omega Nutrition, one of the co-owners found himself in a similar predicament. This worked in my favor as he took me under his wing and enabled me to do many fun and inspiring things. I attended farming conferences and industry trade shows, and partook in nutritional workshops. I met and worked with many pioneers in the organic field.
As a result of these experiences, my eyes opened wide to the realities of the organic industry. I saw organic values being corrupted by greed for money and market share. Large corporations, with little interest in planetary or human health, gobbled up small companies. At the retail level, slick marketing and nutritional double-speak were becoming the norm. I had been under the assumption that health food stores sold healthy food – silly me!
My solution? I would open up my own store and commit to doing the research for our customers. I began planning a back-to-the-roots endeavor of integrity, where people and planet would always come before profits. I wanted to buck the trend of natural food retailers tricking their customers by stocking pseudo-natural products and passing them off as the healthiest options available.
A STORE IS BORN
In 1996, Omega Nutrition burned to the ground in a devastating fire; luckily, nobody was hurt. During the chaos that followed, I lost my job and decided to use the opportunity to live out my crazy dream – opening an all-organic grocery store! Whatever products we sold would be researched by us for purity of ingredients and for manufacturer’s ethical standards. After living off-the-grid in a school bus all those years, and working my butt off, I had not only had paid off my student loans, but I had savings. With my savings, investment capital from friends and family, and a few credit cards, I opened Terra Organica in a former auto parts store on State Street on March 21, 1997. The space only measured 800 square feet. Our “display” freezers were upright home units purchased from Sears. We kept the back-stock for the entire store in the closet of a neighboring woodworking business.
Once the store opened, business boomed. During our first decade in business, we grew at an average annual rate of 55%. Needless to say, we expanded constantly, eventually growing into what had been five individual vendor spaces in our building (about 3,000 square feet).
OTHER BUSINESS ENDEAVORS
Our long time customers may remember (in order) the Bellingham Empowerment Center (group effort), the Terra Organica Community Room (mine), Café Organica (group effort), The Naked Café (independent), The Red Café (independent), The Blackbird World Kitchen & Bakery (independent), and The Café at Terra Organica (mine). All of these occupied a neighboring space, and none of them worked out.
In 2003, I decided to try a different business model there that would compliment Terra Organica. My idea was a discount natural foods store where the offerings would be determined by whatever we could obtain at deep discounts. Bargainica, as we called it, created a bridge between conventional and organic fare and was affordable for people with budget constraints.
THE BELLINGHAM PUBLIC MARKET IS (RE)BORN
Bargainica was a huge hit, and both it and Terra Organica were bursting at the seams. Our two small retail spaces no longer served our needs, so I began to look for a larger retail space.
Committed to remaining downtown, I decided that the best location would be the old Safeway building on the corner of Cornwall and York. I felt that the central location, large parking lot and grocery store infrastructure was ideal for our needs. The problem was that the space was too big. At 14,200 square feet, it was twice the size I was looking for. I thought about this and came up with the idea of a marketplace – Terra Organica with a Bargainica section could occupy half the space, and we could invite tenants to occupy the rest. Hesitant to take on that venture alone, I asked one of our part-time employees to become my business partner. That’s how Gary Holloway and I became partners in owning the market. Gary also acted as project manager during the construction and leasing phase, and the Market Manager once it opened.
We had to come up with a name for our endeavor. “Bellingham Public Market” didn’t occur to us for quite some time. We brainstormed names like “Bellingham Festival Marketplace” and (believe it or not) “Land Ho!” Once we came up with the name, we began researching and visiting other public markets and realized that we stood to join a worldwide community of public markets.
An interesting fact we discovered in our research was that we were not the first Bellingham Public Market. The original opened in 1916 on the northeast corner of Magnolia and Cornwall (currently the location of Rite-Aid) and housed over twenty merchants offering a wide range of products including fresh produce, flowers, seafood, crafts and other local commodities. Its popularity caught on and soon two more markets opened: Peoples Market and Home Market.
The Great Depression and the subsequent advent of cheap transportation and cold storage brought about the demise of these markets in Bellingham and their counterparts across the country. In recent decades, with many cities focusing on urban renewal as an alternative to sprawl, there has been a renaissance of the public market concept. While they vary greatly in design - some are publicly owned, some privately, some are much larger than ours, some much smaller – all share the idea of creating a community space around local independent businesses.
As for our market, a local “angel” investor stepped forward and financed the project, allowing the Bellingham Public Market to become a reality. Planning and construction took about one year, and Gary leased most of the space before we even opened.
The Public Market has remained vibrant and full since it opened in May 2005. Current vendors include Makizushi Sushi, Mt Baker Books, Living Earth Herbs, Trapeze Café and Terra. Two new eateries will be opening soon – more on that later.
A SECOND BARGAINICA LOCATION
As we planned and prepared for the big move, I felt a sense of loss about moving from our old location. We had become the neighborhood store for many people who lived and worked in the area, a regular stop for people heading to the south side, and a destination for many.
I had been toying for some time about opening a stand-alone Bargainica store, and decided to move ahead with the idea when a building a few doors down from us on State Street was due for a first-class remodel. The building boasted a prime location with ample parking and updated wiring and plumbing.
The stand-alone Bargainica store was just getting its footing when the Great Recession hit in late 2007. We hung on for another year, but eventually decided to close instead of fighting a losing battle.
In early 2010, my business partner in the Public Market (Gary) decided move back to his home state of New Jersey work as Market Manager of a new Public Market there. As a result, Terra Organica, Inc. took over the management of the Bellingham Public Market and I assumed Gary’s previous position as Market Manager.
Gary’s departure gave me the opportunity to create a more focused vision for the Public Market and a more comfortable fit for Terra Organica within the space. Market patrons noticed a slow but steady re-invention of the Public Market over the next year and a half. Changes involved new tenants, re-alignment of space, a lot of sprucing up, and an effort to create a more comfortable and inviting ambiance.
In late 2011, with the closure of our coffee vendor (Stuart’s) and adjacent deli (the Panini Grill), I decided to combine the spaces and create the most organic and delicious café-deli-bakery that Bellingham had even known. Inspired by performances by the Bellingham Circus Guild, I named it Trapeze.
Almost simultaneously, I purchased another Public Market Business, Seven Loaves Pizzeria – which was the most organic pizzeria west of the Mississippi (and maybe east of it too).
Two years later I decided to close Seven Loaves Pizzeria because of our difficulties in keeping it profitable. However, Trapeze went on to thrive and earned a reputation as one of the premier coffee destinations in the area, and the Trapeze’s deli became the de facto store deli for Terra Organica
CRISIS AND COMMUNITY RESPONSE
With all the growth and expansion, I had made a critical mistake and overextended the business. Although sales were strong, I had taken on too much all at once in a still struggling economy. The result was that in the summer of 2012, our finances began to unravel. By the end of the summer I was staring down a $200,000 deficit and we started getting seriously behind in our bills. It was a scary time, and for all intents and purposes there was no way that I could ever see us pulling out of the hole.
After a meeting with our angel investor in which I informed her that we would be closing the store, I felt sick to my stomach, my head hurt and I was scared. I went home and slept the rest of the day.
I awoke feeling better, but no less scared. However, in my refreshed state I came up with the idea of reaching out to the community to see if they would come to our rescue. I realized it was a long shot and that I would need to get over my embarrassment of having put the business in this position, but it seemed to me that I owed our customers at least a shot at turning things around.
I posted a letter on Facebook declaring that our closure was imminent if people did not show up in droves to shop in the store and support us. An hour later, the Bellingham Herald called to interview me about my predicament and my decision to reach out. By the end of the day, my letter had gone viral locally and there was an article on the Herald website about what I was asking for.
To say the least, the response from our community was overwhelming. Over the next few weeks, we had record-breaking sales in the store. People came forward to donate money outright, telling us how much they couldn’t imagine us going away. Someone organized a “cash mob” in which hundreds of people showed up on a specified day and committed to spending at least $20. Many of the faces were not our regular customers – just people who wanted to help us out. The cash mob day still stands as our busiest day ever, and also as the turning point. After that, I knew we would make it. And to help us out even more, several customers gave us short and long term loans to help us get back into the black.
It took about two full years to fully recover from our crisis, and just as I was feeling confident we were on solid ground again, things took an unexpected turn.
OPPORTUNITY, REBRANDING AND EXPANSION
In 2013, Terra Organica was recognized by the Organic Consumers Association as being one of the top 12 “right to know” grocers in all of North America. This was partly recognition of us being the FIRST store in the country to label likely genetically engineered products on our shelves, and also because of our dedication to transparency, product integrity, and advocacy in the realm of improving organic standards and supporting GMO labeling.
We were shocked in early 2014 when our landlord would not renew our lease unless we took over the whole building. He did not want the building to remain divided in two, and since the space next door was vacant at the same time our lease was up for renewal, he saw it as his opportunity to revert the building back to a single tenant.
I had three options: MOVE (which would have been prohibitively expensive), CLOSE (which is the last thing I wanted to do) or EXPAND.
To see if expansion even made sense, I wrote a new business plan. My calculations and projections clearly showed that growing into the whole building would be a smart move for us. I went forward with designing an expanded Public Market and raising the money to implement those plans.
By May of 2014, I signed a new long term lease on the building and had already secured about 75% of the financing required to do the work.
I am writing this in August of 2014 while our giant expansion project is underway. I can hear the workers next door polishing the concrete floor. I am excited about the next phase of our business.
Highlights of the changes include:
· New eateries in the Public Market: Ambo Ethiopian Cuisine and Electric Beet Juice Co.
· Two classrooms that will be free for nonprofits and community groups, or available for an hourly fee to businesses. Plus we will have space to offer classes on health & nutrition!
· Two very nice large bathrooms that won’t have to be locked. The old ones will remain and be gender-neutral.
· A meat department featuring the highest quality fresh organic meats. We even have room to add a butcher shop in the future when and if we have the demand for it.
· A video rental store. We purchased thousands of videos from Trek Video in Fairhaven when they closed earlier this year
· We have shortened the name of our store to Terra and eliminated the name Bargainica. That said, we will have more deals than ever!
· Terra will be three times as big and carry more than twice as many products. Due to our increased purchasing power, we will be able to offer lower prices on many items. Also, every department will expand its product selection so that more people can use Terra for one-stop grocery shopping.
· We developed a new labeling system using color coded shelf tags to evaluate products on twelve different criteria. A quick glance will tell you the status of the following: If it has or is (1) organic, (2) non-GMO, (3) no sugar added (4) produced by an independent business, (4) local or regional, (5) acceptable labor conditions, (6) vegan or vegetarian, (7) carageenan-free, (8) raw, (9) gluten-free, (10) dairy-free, or (12) soy-free. To this end we have hired a dedicated product researcher.
I am really excited about these changes. I think Terra. Trapeze and the Bellingham Public Market will be better than ever. The expansion will increase our clout in our community and in our industry, making our mission that much more visible to people. Or at least that’s the plan!
FACING THE FUTURE
In the scheme of things, Terra, Trapeze and the Public Market are but local manifestations of a desire for a better world. On the macro level, our society faces some huge issues, including some that threaten our very survival. War, climate change, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the general disregard for the effect of our lifestyle on the biosphere are real and devastating issues
That said, I am an eternal optimist. I intentionally brought a child into this imperfect world because I think we are more resilient, creative and thoughtful than we give our collective selves credit for. The possibility of a more just and sustainable world for future generations is within our reach.
I started this business because I realized that I could not remove myself from “the system” and still satisfy my personal need to feel like I am making a difference. Terra, Trapeze and the Bellingham Public Market are baby steps, and they are far from perfect. As much as I hope that you will shop here and support these endeavors, my dream is that someday the grocery store model will be irrelevant. One day our food will not be heavily processed and packaged, and it will not originate thousands of miles away from our communities. Children will no longer think that food “comes from” supermarkets and restaurants because they will know the people growing, raising, fishing, hunting, gathering, baking and otherwise creating it. Food won’t be paid for by bank cards, and nor will the costs to produce it be externalized in the environment and our health bills. And, it will be purchased with the fruits of an honest labor and an economy that treads far more lightly upon the earth, or even raised by the very people who eat it.
If this world comes to be in my lifetime, you may find me once again living off the grid in a converted school bus. Until then, or until the day I retire, you will find me here – doing my best to fill your shopping cart with the most nourishing foods I can convince you to buy.
Thank you for reading my story.