The black and white picture above is of me, Stephen Trinkaus. The photo on the right is of the exterior of our original location on State Street – pictured are (from left to right): James Loucky (a former professor of mine from WWU); my wife Jillian, my son Cody, and me (from 2003).
This is where you can read the story of the business, who we are, and why we do what we do. To tell the story, I have to tell my story – at least as it relates to how the business got started and why I’ve decided to run the stores the way I do. I think you will find it interesting. It’s a bit long, but well worth the time. So, here it goes!
FROM JUNK FOOD TO ORGANIC FOOD
If you could travel back in time to the early 1990’s to seek me out, you would never guess that the guy you would meet would some day own an organic grocery store. In 1991 I was attending WWU and finishing up my degree in Latin American Studies. My goal was to go to grad school, then work in international trade. I spoke fluent Spanish and had spent a couple of years living in and traveling through 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.
During the summer I worked 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 were 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, it motivated me to commit to an all-organic diet – a drastic change!
As many have found, when one begins to question the dominant assumptions of society, one’s life can 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 in the York neighborhood 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 in every way. And I started working for 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 so for passion for the product or service they offer, for the profit potential, or both. The pioneers of the organic movement definitely 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 doing very different jobs than those they did initially. For better or for worse, I have found this true in my business as well. I now spend a lot of time dealing with finance, marketing, strategic planning, managing the managers, and such, rather than the things I used to do such as working with farmers and talking to customers.
When I worked for Omega Nutrition, the owner found himself in a similar predicament. This, however, 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.
The result of this is that my eyes were opened wide to the realities of the industry. I saw that the organic values were 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 we would do the research for the customers. This would be a back-to-the-roots endeavor of integrity, where people and planet would always come before profits.
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 there and decided 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 not only had paid off my student loans, but 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.
We were small - only 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 business.
To make a long story short, Terra Organica boomed. In the business world, 15% annual growth is considered extremely strong. For our first decade in business, our business grew at an average annual rate of 55%. Needless to say, we expand constantly and eventually grew into what had been five individual spaces in our building (about 3,000 square feet).
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 they all lost money. Lots of it. In fact, by the time The Café at Terra Organica closed, I was talking to an attorney - my side businesses were about to bring down the store and bankrupt my family. “There’s no other way to dig yourself out,” the attorney advised me. So bankruptcy it was. Not because I didn’t run a good store (Terra Organica was doing fine), but for not listening when others said, “Don’t do it – the store is more than enough for a mere mortal such as yourself.”
Then one morning, I woke up and realized that bankruptcy was not the way I wanted to go out – I would go down kicking and screaming if need be – but not before the landlord kicked us out and our suppliers cut us off.
That’s when my friend Shane Hart said, “Stephen, you oughtta start that discount store you’ve been talking about in that space next door.” I decided to tempt my mortality once again.
And so Bargainica was born in the former café space, and six months later we were showing a profit and our financial standing was solid.
Bargainica was founded with a very different philosophy from Terra – if it’s a deal and it’s organic or natural” then we’ll sell it. Hmmm. Whatever happened to all those ideals about standards and ethics? “Natural” has no legal definition and usually refers to products that contain no “artificial” ingredients. However, if you could see a list of the food additives that are considered “natural” you may not think you are being leveled with. And you’re not.
Bargainica bridges conventional and organic fare. Additionally, it’s affordable for people with budget constraints. Hopefully someday everyone will prioritize organic food as a necessity and have the income to support it. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. Bargainica is the stepping stone. And, we still have tough ingredient standards, just not as tough as Terra Organica’s. It is a compromise, one I feel very proud of. Bargainica has developed its own personality, its own following and its own place in our struggle for wholeness and sustainability.
THE BELLINGHAM PUBLIC MARKET IS (RE)BORN
Once everything stood on solid ground again, our business literally burst at the seams. Our small space no longer served our needs. I began to look for a new larger location.
Committed to remaining downtown, I found limited options. After analyzing the possibilities, I came to the conclusion that the best location would be the old Safeway building on the corner of Cornwall and York. Two problems though: another business already occupied the building, and as great at it was, it would still be too big. However, I couldn’t resist its ideal location, large parking lot, and infrastructure already designed as a grocery store. Unwilling to give up, I literally went to one of the existing tenants (Crazy Prices) and asked if they would consider sharing the space (they didn’t use a lot of it) or if they were considering moving anytime soon. It turned out that I was an answer to their prayers. They had actually been considering both possibilities. To make a long story short, they ended up moving to Mount Vernon, where they combined with another business and became Stupid Prices (really, I wouldn’t make that up).
That solved the problem of its occupation, but not of its size - at 14,200 square feet, it was way bigger than I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be that big because (1) in order to fill the space we would have to carry products that didn’t meet our standards, and (2) staffing a store that size would have resulted in us losing the tight-knit community we had always experienced. I thought about this and came up with the idea of a marketplace – Terra Organica could occupy half the space, and we could invite tenants to occupy the rest. We could share infrastructure (utilities, janitorial services, marketing, etc.) and create a nice little community.
Great idea – but there was no way I could take that venture alone. I worked 50 to 60 hours per week, I had an infant at home, a marriage commitment, and I was missed doing the things I used to do before I started the business. Feeling spread too thin, 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.
Still, we had to come up with a name for our endeavor. “Bellingham Public Market” didn’t occur to us for quite some time. Some earlier versions were “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 were actually joining a worldwide community of public markets.
Another interesting thing we discovered 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 new 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 was able to lease most of the space before we even opened. Although some of the businesses have closed (Café Ohya, Curious Crow Espresso, Collections Gifts, Stuart’s, Panini Grill & Deli, Ilse’s Schnitzel Haus, Carmen’s), others have moved to new locations (Chocolate Necessities, Wild Blueberries), and some have done both (Fair Trade Crafts, Pescaderia Seafood), the market has remained vibrant and full since it opened in May 2005. A current listing of market vendors may be found on this page.
THE 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.
Since I had been toying for some time about opening a stand-alone Bargainica location, the first consideration was to reopen the old store as a Bargainica store. Then I found out that a building that was just down the street from us had been purchased and was due for a first-class remodel. A prime location with ample parking and updated wiring and plumbing - simply too good to pass up – especially with the opportunity to secure the end space by the parking lot.
The decision was not hard to make – Bargainica would have a second location.
AND IT WORKED
They were good moves. They were stressful, expensive, over-budget, debt-inducing moves, but they were worth it. Our gross sales grew 81% the first year, and 85% the second. As of May 2008, about 750 people per day shopped in our stores, up from about 200 customers per day prior to the move and expansion.
How has competition affected us? Prior to Trader Joe’s opening, we had only ever had one real competitor – the Community Food Co-op. “Competitor” is used loosely here because we have always been more collaborative than competitive. When Trader Joe’s opened in late September 2007, we faced our first test and came out spectacularly. The average natural foods retailer loses 10% to 20% of their business when a Trader Joe’s moves into their core area. At our Public Market, sales fell about 4% for one month, then bounced back to record breaking sales during the following months. At our State Street location, we fell 15% for three months, and then rebounded to average sales. Then, in early 2009, the Community Food Co-op opened its second location in the north part of town and our business took another hit. Once again we rebounded to match our previous level of sales.
CYNICISM, COMMUNITY AND A NEW ABOLITIONIST
As we grew larger, so grew my doubts about the organic and natural foods industry. In my heart I hoped that Terra Organica would be part of a trend to reclaim the organic movement from the claws of the corporatocracy. But the corporate beast is relentless in its pursuit of market share and the uprising to reclaim the movement never materialized.
One day, as I was giving an orientation for new employees, telling the story you have just been reading, I began to explain what motivated me: passion for sustainable agriculture, belief in the wonders of natural healing modalities, enjoyment of food grown and prepared with reverence. I told the new employees that this is what keeps me coming to work each day, even when times are hard and when running a business makes me feel like a pinball bouncing from one bumper to the next. At that moment I realized I was repeating a script and that, in all honesty, I had become quite cynical about the movement.
I enjoyed my work, so I asked myself, “what motivates me now?” I realized that the community that surrounds the Public Market keeps me going – employees, customers, other Public Market business owners and employees, farmers, suppliers, delivery people, etc. This was both a blessing and a curse because, although I was (and am) surrounded by amazing people, I enjoy my life more when I serve as an activist, pushing the edges and fighting for a better world.
I decided to become a modern day abolitionist and to join the effort to bring an end to human trafficking and modern slavery. (Why it was this issue is the topic for another essay altogether.)
I dove head first into the topic and discovered that there are more people living in slavery now (about 27 million) than at any point in human history. And I’m not talking about sweat shops or abysmal working conditions, but people who work against their will, who are threatened with beatings or death if they try to leave, and whose work is entirely appropriated to enrich others. Furthermore (and not surprisingly) primarily women and children are trafficked. What surprised me was how widespread yet invisible trafficking was, and that slavery even occurred in Bellingham and Whatcom County. (For more information on modern slavery, check out this web page from the US Department of State).
I also wanted to leverage the business in this cause; as a result in 2007 we implemented our GIVE TO FREE program. We began to educate our customers. I presented to community groups around town and beyond, and at the store we distributed the GIVE TO FREE card. With this card, customers earned a $5 Terra Organica certificate for every $300 they spent, and each time they reached this award level we donated $2 to the Washington-DC nonprofit Free The Slaves.
I had again found meaning and joy in fighting for a better world. In spite of the true horror that defines slavery, I felt that both me and the business were reinvigorated with purpose and aim.
And then there is the economy. As food, raw material and oil prices experienced record price increases and long standing financial institutions collapsed under the weight of greed, economic turmoil consumed world markets in 2008. As a result, we suffered our first ever period of negative growth. After eleven years of boom, we experienced our first bust - nothing terribly dramatic, but enough to cause us to question continuing to operate of two stores. After much deliberation, we decided that it would be in the best interest of our business to close the State Street location.
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.
REINVENTION, SEVEN LOAVES & TRAPEZE
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 is still the most organic pizzeria west of the Mississippi (and maybe east of it too).
Although Trapeze and Seven Loaves have maintained individual names and identities, the two businesses are now run as the Food Services Department of Terra Organica – giving us economy of scale and efficiency advantages to support the daunting task of maintaining organic integrity and affordable pricing. There are reasons why so few restaurants serve organic food and why some deceptively claim “organic whenever possible” when the only organic ingredient is the salad mix – it’s REALLY hard! So if this is something you would like to see flourish, PLEASE support our businesses!
The challenges presented by today’s economy, by running a truly organic food services department, and by being in the lowest profit margin business on the planet (yup, that’s the grocery industry) have forced me to focus our energy and vision in 2012. What this means is getting back to the core values upon which the business was founded 15 years ago, and re-assess how the business is run from top to bottom. This is a process that we are in the midst of right now. So much of this chapter has yet to be written.
At this point what I can say at this point is that we decided to end the GIVE TO FREE program and to replace it with the Terra Card. There are three main reasons for doing this:
(1) The program seems to have run its course in the five years of its existence. It represents heroic and necessary work on the part of many people and organizations, but I know from experience this work burns people out, especially those (like me) who are extremely sensitive to human suffering.
(2) Awareness of modern slavery has skyrocketed worldwide. Most importantly, people are organizing to confront the mechanisms and criminal networks causing and perpetuating slavery. I feel as if others are taking over where we began and bringing the work to the next level; and
(3) Because for so long we had focused almost all of our charitable giving in this one area, and I felt it was time to broaden our giving to more diverse groups and causes, especially to local interests. I want to transition from a business that almost always says “no” when someone knocks on our door asking for a donation, to one that says “yes.”
And further changes are afoot . . .
FACING THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Our society faces some huge issues that threaten our very survival: war, peak oil, climate change, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the general disregard for the effect of our lifestyle on the biosphere. These are real and devastating issues, and it constantly amazes me that there is still so much denial amongst the very people whose lives will be most affected.
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 better world for the future generations is within our reach. It will be a different world indeed, and it will likely be birthed by even more pain and suffering. But it is ours - if we want it to be.
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 Organica, Bargainica, Bellingham Public Market, Seven Loaves Pizzeria and Trapeze are baby steps to a more compassionate world – 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 so processed, so packaged, and come from so far away from our communities. Children will no longer think that food “comes from” supermarkets and restaurants because it will come from the people who grow it, raise it, fish it, hunt it, bake it, and otherwise create it. It 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.
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.