It’s a scene played out hundreds of times during the summer when tourists discover Bay Hay and Feed on Rolling Bay, but co-owner Howard Block never tires of it.
“People who grew up in a small town in Nebraska, or wherever, come in and look around the store and someone will say, ‘This is what it was like when I was a kid,’” he said. “I think it’s that sweet smell of feed, grain, that gets them first. Then there’s so much packed into such a small space. I’m ecstatic about it every time it happens.”
For owners Block and wife Ce-Ann Parker, both of whom grew up in small towns, customer feedback represents a subtle payoff — a pat on the back — for 29 years of hard work and deep affection for the community they serve.
Slowly, but unmistakably, they have created a pleasant, welcoming environment that has led to their business and the 96-year-old building becoming the distinct center of the Rolling Bay neighborhood.
In an era of burgeoning corporate retail stores, they have hit on a successful formula that is unique even to Bainbridge Island, where community-centered businesses have the opportunity to flourish because the consumer is somewhat isolated.
The rural environment has played an important part in making the business, which has evolved into a large nursery and general store sans groceries, an island institution and a financial success for its owners. But it’s their caring, responsive approach toward their employees, customers, neighbors and fellow business people that has made it such an important part of the island community.
“This is the best thing we could be doing,” Howard said last week. “I can’t say why we’re here, but we’re meant to provide this place. We have the ability to do this, and we have a great staff. We depend on them more than anything.”
When Howard tells the story about how he, a native of Long Island, N.Y. and Ce-Ann, who grew up in Winslow, bought the store and building, he makes it sound as if it were happenstance: One day they woke up in their Poulsbo home, decided to drive around the island, walked into a dusty old feed store whose owner was willing to sell, quickly bought a house a block a way and a few hours later drove across the Agate Pass Bridge in a state of shock.
Impulsive, yes. Disinclined, no.
They were fresh from a business success in Durham, N.H. (where both attended the University of New Hampshire) with one of the country’s first natural food stores, flush with money after selling out and primed for another challenge.
“We bought it on a whim, no doubt about it,” said Howard, sitting on a bench next to Ce-Ann, who often allows her husband to pontificate, but listens carefully to the stories she’s heard a thousand times and isn’t hesitant to clean up a fact or two. “We walked in and asked the owner (Lyle Flodin) if the store’s for sale. How much? He named a price. We looked at each other. OK, we’ll buy it.
“He was shocked. He must’ve thought we’re from Mars. Then we asked if there were any houses for sale nearby. He told us about a house around the corner (on In hindsight, it all makes sense. “Howard is happiest when he’s doing projects,” Ce-Ann said.
With an old building and a dynamic business, there’s no shortage of those.
The original idea was to open another natural foods store, but they hesitated and before long Howard, a good businessman, started learning more about feed and animals.
Plus, Ce-Ann’s experience with horticulture spawned a crucial revenue stream – a nursery.
Most importantly, she has helped him learn about the island. She grew up here and knows what makes the place tick. She’s sensitive to others’ needs, soft-spoken but decisive. They are equal partners in the business, which is vital considering that since they bought the store they’ve been working and living together night and day for years.
There was no master plan, however, and they left their options open until Abbie (now 25) and Teague (22) were born.
“When we had kids,” Ce-Ann said, “everything changed. Originally, we weren’t planning to be here forever. But with kids… What was great was that they played and later worked here. It was good for them. This has been an important part of their lives.”
There’s no argument among the owners that the 20 or so part- or full-time employees are the foundation of the business.
Their happiness, of course, is somewhat dependent on the owners, and Howard and Ce-Ann generally work right alongside the people they have hired.
Ce-Ann keeps busy mostly in the nursery, while Howard roams inside and out. He does everything, but prefers the muscle work – loading or unloading feed and other wares out back.
“It’s totally relaxing for me, and I think employees like it when I go outside,” he said. “It gives them a break from me.”
There have been several employees who have worked for more than a dozen years at the store, including Tom Stiver, who retired after 19 years, and Bill Vokolek, who also worked at Bay Hay for 19 years and is considered Mr. Buildit by his employers.
In an effort to make the business green and affordable, little material goes unused, especially wood pallets that are left behind by delivery trucks.
“Bill’s built almost everything here from those one-by-four pallets – furniture, counters, displays,” Howard said. “When we get a piece of wood, we turn it into something. Re-use, re-use. Eventually it’ll end up as firewood. Bill’s the master at doing that.”
He also has put together a Bay Hay and Feed family tree, of sorts, chronologically recording the name of every person who has worked at the store. Even their first cat, Wing Wing, a stowaway who arrived one day on a hay truck from Eastern Washington, is listed.
“We now have kids working here whose parents started here as kids,” Ce-Ann said. It makes them feel good that we’ve gone so deep into the community.
One of their favorites was a “smart kid” named Taylor who was put on coal duty at a time when the store sold 50-pound bags of coal to many islanders.
“We agreed to pay him 25 cents a bag and he was real fast and it wasn’t long before we realized he was making more money (per hour) than the rest of our employees,” Howard said. “We had to make an adjustment.”
Ce-Ann and Howard also encourage their employees to interact with customers, whether it’s by getting to know them or by being involved with the community.
This genuine friendliness of the owners and their employees tends to break down any walls that may exist, and customers seem relaxed and even jocular when shopping at Bay Hay.
When a photographer wanted to take a photo of the owners and all of the employees in front of the store, customers were told that the employees would be back in a few minutes. No one stayed inside to keep an eye on them, or to lock the cash registers.
Such trust and openness is an unusual occurrence in a retail environment. It’s an interesting phenomenon, Howard and Ce-Ann agreed, because when the retailer reaches out and is consistent about being benevolent, the neighborliness becomes contagious and customers have a favorable response.
But it’s not a ploy, he said. It’s more an attitude.
“Personally, I like going on the ferry and being recognized,” he said. “It’s the applause, like at the theater. I like them and they like me. If they keep coming to the play, it’s pleasant for us and for them.”
As retailers, Ce-Ann and Howard are open to learning what makes people enjoy shopping and why they might choose to shop with them.
“More than anything,” he said, “we just listen to our customers. Some of their ideas can be tweaked to work for us. We’ve learned to listen to what works on Bainbridge Island. I guess that’s why we’re almost a member of the 30-year club.”
Howard likes to tell the story of how neighbors enjoyed watching him and others working in the mid-1980s when they ripped out the boardwalk in front of the store and then discovered they had to dig under the wood building to reinforce its foundation.
“We had a fence up and people would hang on it and watch us,” he said. “It took most of the summer.
“There was some inconvenience, but people enjoyed the entertainment. That and the fact that could watch people who didn’t really know what they were doing.”
Ce-Ann believes that people feel comfortable with Bay Hay because it has become a constant in their lives.
There have been changes – cows, sheep, goats and thousands of chickens have come and gone.
People, too. But the service and the warmth remain.
“Most customers are appreciative of that stability,” she said. “They rely on us. While the store has grown some over the years, our neighbors like that it has been a slow growth. They know we’re not going anywhere.”
Too late for that.