POULSBO — Julie Wuesthoff was taking inventory of produce Aug. 23 at Poulsbo’s Central Market.
She’s been working in the store’s produce department for 11 years. Before that, she farmed and cooked, but never thought she’d be in the grocery business. Then, she went to work for Central Market.
“There’s a spiritual connection to the work we do,” she said. “The owners are very enlightened grocery men and women … [They] listen to their employees and are open to the ever-changing dynamics in the marketplace. I think they have a great potential to be here for another 60 years. They care, change, adapt and grow, and that’s pretty special.”
Town & Country Markets, parent company of Central Market, marks its 60th anniversary on Aug. 29. But the company’s story dates back before that and is one of personal resilience and enduring friendship.
The story begins in 1899, when Jitsuzo Nakata and his family came to America from Japan and opened a barber shop on Bainbridge Island. At around the same time, Tom Loverich came to Bainbridge Island from Austria and bought the Winslow Dock Grocery Store. The Nakata and Loverich families became friends.
Fast-forward 40 years. John Nakata, Jitsuzo’s eldest son, built the Eagle Harbor Market on the site of his father’s barber shop and family home. “He raised chickens behind the store for his weekly Friday fryer specials, and business was good,” the company history states. “However, after the war began in 1941, the Nakata families were taken to internment camps, along with all other Japanese Americans in the Northwest, and the market was sold.”
After the war, the Nakatas returned to Bainbridge Island. Brothers John and Mo Nakata worked with their friend Ed Loverich, Tom’s son, making fishing tackle. “But soon, they were all back in the grocery business,” according to the company history. “Between the three of them, they purchased and operated three markets. Eventually, they sold their smaller stores, and on Aug. 29, 1957, they together opened Town & Country Thriftway on Bainbridge Island. Thus, Town & Country Markets was born.”
According to the company history, the grand opening of Town & Country Thriftway was “a community event on a grand scale,” with helicopters and heavyweight boxing champions and personalities from children’s television — and the introduction to the island of automatic doors, then called “magic doors.” The store, and company, thrived.
In 1985, the company opened Ballard Market; in 1990, Central Market in Shoreline; in 1995, Central Market in Poulsbo; in 2004, Central Market in Mill Creek; and in 2015, Town & Country in Bellevue. A store is expected to open in Gig Harbor in 2019.
Despite its evolution into a regional grocery company, Town & Country maintains the attributes of a neighborhood store. The company buys products from more than 30 local growers. You can sample various products, learn how to cook different dishes, and take recipes home (the company website features a video on how to make grilled salmon with dijon basil butter). You can get a coffee, dine outside on barbecue, or grab something to go — from spanakopita to green hatch chili — for lunch.
At Central Market in Poulsbo, older residents take early-morning walks in the store for exercise. You’ll often see friends sitting at the tables next to the newspapers, chatting about the latest news over morning coffee and a scone.
And Nakata and Loverich family members still work for the company. One of them, Susan Allen, is senior director of brand development for Town & Country Markets. Her father, the late Don Nakata, once served as CEO.
Allen thanks the community for 60 years of support. “With each milestone, we look through old photos, share stories and think about longtime customers and employees,” she said. “As we reflect on the past, we are always humbled by and grateful for what’s been created over the years by countless people who love food.”
Here’s what some Central Market employees had to say about why the company is successful.
“This is a big part of our great community — we’re nourishing the quality of life of those we interact with and connect with on a regular basis,” store director Tom Hall said.
“It’s just an amazing journey. What [people are] looking for is always changing. How they connect, interact and celebrate food is always changing. We have to be in tune with that and adjust to people’s needs.”
He added, “Now more than ever, there’s a lot of different options for people. Access to culture and food is a big part of who we are today.”
Town & Country’s recipe for success, according to Hall: “Food, people and love. I like to think we take those ingredients and mix them all together. If we include these in everything we think, say and do, we will offer a great experience.”
Aug. 23, Central Market meat manager Jeremy Geiger spent mid-morning wrapping lamb for stew. (The meat department wraps about 1,600 packages per day). His favorite cut is rib-eye steak because of its tenderness, the slight amount of fat, and how it retains its juice on the grill. “It’s a manly man’s steak,” he said.
“I’m passionate about cooking. It’s a de-stressor for me and a great way to show my appreciation for those I care about.”
Geiger, a 20-year Central Market employee, said he’s proud to work for the company.
“It’s a sense of community here,” he said. “There’s a sense of family and togetherness you find here that’s kept me here so long. There will always be a place for a store like this, a place in the community, [a] gathering spot for people to come and shop, talk and connect.”
Meanwhile, Central Market Pizza & Hot Dogs manager Jennifer Johnson was crafting a barbecued chicken pizza. She celebrated 22 years with the company on Aug. 2.
“This is a huge family community,” she said of Central Market. “The owners treat employees like people, not some number in the book.”
She recounted her journey from pizza cook to manager.
“I was 19 years old and in college when I found out I was pregnant,” she said. “I was a young, single mom just looking for an opportunity and I was about to be laid off. HR saw I was on the chopping block and offered me a spot in produce if I was willing to move departments. That showed me they really cared.”
Johnson, who now manages more than 30 employees, said the culture of the company is about providing opportunities.
“It feels great to work for a company who cares about their employees,” she said. “They want us to be happy and the customers see that. It’s full circle; if the customers see us happy, they want to come back to that environment to shop.”
When she interviews potential employees for job openings, one of her interview questions is, “What is your five-year plan?”
“Most of them tell me their five-year plan is to be here,” she said.
Johnson recently met a Central Market fan at a baseball game — in New York.
“That’s incredible,” she said. “I’m running into people across the country telling me how great Central Market and Town & Country are. It’s so much more than just a grocery store — it’s a community hub.”
Sally Priest, Central Market’s floral manager for 12 years, said the company is a family affair. Her son, Alex, is a courtesy clerk; her parents, Steve and Sue, ran the pharmacy for a number of years.
She described her experience with the company in one word: “Fulfilling.”
“They treat their employees well and it shows,” she said. “The employees feel it. When you walk in the store, you feel it.”
First-time customers Bob and Tricia Gocke were loading their groceries into their car Aug. 23. The Port Orchard residents had heard rave reviews about the store and decided to try it.
“Very impressed,” Bob said. “It looks like they have everything you could ever want, and they even had coho salmon on sale.”
It was clear what the Gockes would be having for dinner that night.
— Sophie Bonomi is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Richard Walker and Luciano Marano contributed to this report.
Town & Country Market marks its 60th anniversary with an outdoor barbecue from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 26 at its Bainbridge Island store.
The stores will serve lunch of grilled salmon (or hot dogs for the kids) with fresh corn and salad, for a suggested donation of $5. Proceeds will benefit Helpline House Food Bank.
And, of course, there will be cake.
Central Market in Poulsbo will celebrate the compan’s 60th anniversary beginning at noon Aug. 26, serving barbecued ribs with potato salad, fresh melon, and a cupcake until supplies run out. There is a suggested $5 donation for the Nelson Park Transitional Home.