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A fruitful (and veggie-ful) history

Town & Country Markets’ Larry Nakata shines as Business Person of the Year.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Town & Country Markets’ Larry Nakata shines as Business Person of the Year.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

As T&C readies for its golden anniversary, Larry Nakata is businessman of the year.

Two themes invariably emerge when people talk about Town & Country Markets president Larry Nakata: deep respect for the place Nakata has earned in the community and his strong preference for keeping a low profile.

As newly named 2007 Business Person of the Year, Nakata will have to endure a little limelight.

The Chamber of Commerce award, which comes with a luncheon next week and a place of prominence in the island’s Grand Old Fourth parade this July, corresponds to T&C’s 50th anniversary.

Nakata acknowledged that he had to think for a time about whether to accept the award, but concluded that it made sense.

“This is an important year for us,” Nakata said. “The timing of this acknowledgment is appropriate – we’ve had a long, rich history here downtown. Getting the award is really a nice recognition of this history.”

Nakata took the helm of T&C seven years ago after his cousin Don passed away suddenly. Since then, he’s concerned himself with the nuts-and-bolts business strategies necessary for keeping the grocery chain healthy.

Examples include the remodeling of Poulsbo’s Central Market and Seattle’s Ballard Market; a new Central Market in Mill Creek; and the closing of the Poulsbo Market after a nearly 30-year run.

That last decision was bittersweet, but Nakata said with the arrival of super stores like Wal Mart nearby, the organization had to consolidate its Poulsbo presence and “move the chess pieces around.”

“We really needed to get real about business and business strategy,” he said.

Still, peers and colleagues say profit for its own sake is not what Nakata’s business sensibility is really all about.

“He very much cares for his staff, his customers, the community, even the farmers that produce the products that he sells,” friend Tom Haggar said.

Haggar, a fellow downtown property owner, has known Nakata for roughly 30 years. But the two only became close recently through their mutual participation in the Winslow Tomorrow planning project.

Haggar describes Nakata as a leader who listens carefully to his board, employees and customers and “looks out for people, not the bottom line.”

“He actually has a sense of humor,” Haggar added. “I’m not sure too many people realize that.”

The Bainbridge T&C is an undisputed community hub not just by virtue of its prime locale but because being there makes people feel good. Patrons regularly gather at the store, and it’s well nigh impossible to get in and out without running into someone.

“T&C has become an icon,” Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Dwyer said. “It’s in many ways a second home for people.”

Nakata offers a modest response.

“I think it’s a comfortable environment,” he said. “It has a long history of that attitude, that you want to create a comfortable place for people to shop.”

As T&C folds its community in, it also gives back.

Nakata said Don’s wife, Ellen, is integral to T&C’s ongoing and well-organized participation in the Race for the Cure benefit, which includes a yearly quilt raffle. And they make every effort to give to local organizations.

“I’d be hard pressed to find a nonprofit organization that walked in there and asked for something and didn’t get it,” Dwyer said. “They’re very community oriented and have been for their entire history, as far as I know.”

Then there’s the matter of food. Regular shoppers have grown accustomed to the store’s range, which includes organic and local produce, a large deli selection and bakery concoctions.

Less known is that at the northwest corner of Wyatt Way and Weaver Avenue, the company is quietly farming a patch of land that the Nakata family has owned since Larry’s grandparents purchased it in 1924.

The former strawberry farm now produces a small assortment of organic produce sold in the markets simply under the label “local.” Nakata said the company’s eventual intention is to develop the land, MiddleField Farm, into a larger organic outfit.

“During hard times, it certainly fed our families,” he said. “So we want to bring it back to somewhat of its former self...by producing and recognizing those who came before us.”

Billie Loverich, wife of the store’s late co-founder Ed, passed away recently. That chapter’s closing, along with T&C’s anniversary, prompted Nakata to reflect on how much the history of the store mirrors that of the island.

“That partnership between two different nationalities was a pretty big deal,” Nakata said of the original Loverich-Nakata collaboration. “It’s one expression of what a great place Bainbridge Island has always been.”

Larry’s brother Ron, Ellen and Don’s daughter Susan, and Wayne Loverich among others still help the stores run day to day, and Nakata is proud that the two families’ presence is integral to the company that now employs more than 900 people.

“We’re looking forward to what the future may look like,” Nakata said. “We have an emotional connection to downtown and would like to commit to downtown if that’s possible.”

And are there any other plans on T&C’s horizon?

“Millions,” he said.

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Honoring Larry

The Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce will celebrate Larry Nakata as its 2007 Business Person of the Year with a luncheon on May 16 at Wing Point Golf & Country Club. For reservations, call 842-3700.

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