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50 years as cornerstone of downtown

Susan Calhoun holds a photo of her two daughters who were past employees.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Susan Calhoun holds a photo of her two daughters who were past employees.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

T&C market gears up for this weekend’s golden anniversary fete.

When customers were asked in an admittedly informal and unstructured survey how often they shop at Town & Country, a distinct theme emerged, prefaced by the following:

“I’m embarrassed to say, but...”

They weren’t embarrassed by how infrequently they stop into the store, but how often. And they weren’t really embarrassed.

Patsy Larson has been a regular since she moved to the island in 1981. She’s in the store every day, not just because she likes the variety of fruits and vegetables and the large organic selection.

She also likes knowing most of the checkers by name and the sense of neighborliness and community that she feels a part of each time she walks through the door.

“It just feels very comfortable,” Larson said. “I don’t shop anywhere else. The people here care about the community and the families in it.”

As Store Director Rick Pedersen sees it, the feelings of community reciprocity and mutual loyalty lie at the heart the success of T&C, which will officially hit its 50-year mark on Aug. 29, prefaced by a celebration this Saturday at Waterfront Park.

“I just think there’s a really good connection between the store and the community that’s been built by many people over a long period time,” Pedersen said. “And we’re really fortunate to have that history to work with in the world today.”

T&C Office Manager Mari Loverich is literally part of the T&C family. Her husband, Wayne, was a long-time store director and nephew of co-founder Ed Loverich.

In 32 years with the company, Mari has seen her share of change.

“I’ve gone through a few remodels and a lot – and a lot and a lot – of employees,” she said. “I started when there were 30 employees, and now there are over 900. And my biggest challenge personally, is holding on to those things that made the store special and continuing to do that.

“It’s a struggle sometimes, like everything in life I guess is.”

But Loverich believes that upper management’s trust in employees’ decision-making abilities is a key ingredient in the market’s success, whether it’s being able to organize a store event or spot a customer their payment until the next day.

“We’re given the freedom to do that here,” Loverich said. “You feel that the management supports that.”

Customers pick up on that sense of individual ownership. Mary Kay Thompson, a seven-year islander and T&C regular, sums it up as she shops with her son, Noah, tucked into the basket of a demi shopping cart.

“It’s run like a small market, but it’s a big one,” she said.

So at the ripe old age of 50, and with a downtown core on the verge of change, can the Bainbridge market move into the future while maintaining the neighborly, autonomous, small-town feeling that customers and employees both love, and that is so intrinsic to the success of the system?

“That’s the age-old question,” T&C Chairman Larry Nakata said. “As organizations grow, how can they keep what’s special about them and hopefully into the future, provide an overall improvement over what they’ve offered?

“That’s a question that quite a lot of companies ask themselves.”

Because as feel-good as the T&C experience is, shopping there also reflects the growing pains of a more densely populated island – as patrons vie for a parking spaces or try to navigate the produce aisle at 5 p.m. on a Friday, for example.

Nakata says he isn’t prepared yet to share specifics about T&C’s plans for the growth of its current Bainbridge market, but he does acknowledge its need.

“We recognize that there are a lot of things around us that are changing,” he said, “and we need to adapt to changes and ourselves move forward.

“We’ve been involved with the larger conversation about what’s going on in Winslow, and are optimistic. There are a lot of good people who are working really hard on the downtown streetscape plan...I think in these next six months to a year, we’ll really have a clear picture about what Winslow can become, and it’s up to each property owner to see how they can operate within those guidelines.”

Meanwhile, Nakata’s just hoping it won’t rain on Saturday’s big celebration at Waterfront Park.

The rest, he has faith, will sort itself out.

“If we stay clear about what we value the most and keep those values in front of us, then things will work out fine,” he said. “It really does boil down to people. We’re all unique in all own ways, and all want to go to a place where they feel welcome.

“That should never really change."

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The big Five-Oh

Town & Country Market will celebrate its 50th year in the Bainbridge community with a picnic in Waterfront Park from 3 to 9 p.m. Aug. 25. There’ll be live music all afternoon and into the evening, kids’ games, food from 4:30 to 6 p.m. and a fireworks show over Eagle Harbor beginning sometime after 9 p.m. Call 842-3848 for information.

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