Olalla community works to save fire-damaged store

A nightmare for the husband-and-wife owners of the Olalla Bay Market began when they were awakened by a phone call early in the morning Aug. 16.

At 2:16 a.m., a security camera picked up suspicious activity, said Gregg Olsen, who with wife Claudia were only a few weeks away from opening the newly refurbished Olalla Bay Market. “The security system caught movement in the back of the store. That movement was smoke from a fire. It triggered an alarm to the security company, and they called us and 911,” Olsen said.

The Olsens, who live a few houses away from the market, got dressed and rushed to the store. Local fire and rescue crews were already on scene battling the blaze. The couple’s twin daughters had sped from Gig Harbor to join their parents in the store parking lot and watched as first responders worked to extinguish the blaze.

“We stood there in silence,” Olsen remembered. “Seeing flashing red lights — it’s scary and unreal. All of the windows had cracked, and smoke was billowing out the front. What goes through your mind is that this couldn’t be true. It’s such a shock. There were tears.”

Fire units from Gig Harbor, Bremerton and 36 firefighters responded to the two-alarm blaze. Emergency crews got the fire under control within an hour, said Laine Desilets of South Kitsap Fire and Rescue. No one was injured.

The market suffered more than $100,000 in damage, Olsen said, adding that could rise as additional repair quotes come in. “The fire originated in the very back of the store in the kitchen area,” he said. “It was a brand-new kitchen area where there was nothing even plugged in so it’s not like something was going. It burned very, very hot.”

Fire damage was isolated to kitchen equipment in the rear of the market’s restaurant. Other portions of the building suffered smoke damage. A huge photo taken in 1927 of strawberry pickers in Olalla Valley was destroyed but 120-year-old barn wood layered around the store’s cooler was saved. The old-growth timber had been milled in Olalla and featured saw marks. Fire crews did not have to use much water, which was fortunate because water can cause significant damage, the owner noted.

The cause of the fire is a mystery. Samples have been sent to the crime lab for analysis, he said. Right after the blaze, Olsen indicated he felt there was no foul play. Now he is unsure. “I do feel a little bit differently today, but I don’t want to go into it. I trust the fire marshal’s office is going to do a great job finding out what it was.”

A community landmark

For decades the sight of the market was occupied by Al’s Grocery. Set on the banks of scenic Colvos Passage and across Vashon Island, the store was viewed as the social hub of the community. The closure of Al’s was a blow to many.

The store also meant a lot to the Olsen family. Their bond with the business played a role in their decision to purchase the place. “It was part of our lives. When we moved here [in 1991], my twin daughters were 7 or 8. They would come down here to get candy. We knew the importance of this store to our community.”

The Olsens are unlikely store owners. He is a prolific writer who has been on the New York Times best-seller list numerous times for his true-crime and crime-fiction books. Claudia is a retired graphic designer who had worked for Alaska Airlines and the News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma. The Olsens, who don’t have any retail business experience, purchased the store in early 2021.

“We don’t have a hangout spot like [those who live] in Port Orchard or Gig Harbor. This space filled a need for our people to be able to gather together, chat and have pizza and a beer. We have this beautiful beach and environment to look at — whales pass by here. What good is it if we can’t enjoy it?”

The store, built in 1950, first was called Greggersen’s. Then in the late 50’s, Al Robbecke bought the store. “It became Al’s then, and it was really an institution for community. Everybody who lived in Olalla would go to Al’s. It had a butcher shop. It was a real grocery store. In those days, small communities actually had functioning grocery stores vs. mini marts,” Olsen said.

Al’s Store operated for decades until the COVID-19 pandemic crippled the business, coupled with the failure of the store’s septic system.

Community support

The community’s response since the Olsens first purchased the store, and again after the fire, has been remarkable, Olsen said. “During the teardown and rebuild, there was no shortage of people every hour stopping by to lend a hand or give a thumbs up. People brought lunch, cookies, muffins or whatever. I believe they knew that something like this is precious and can never be replaced. We are a super close community.”

After the blaze, local residents pulled out their wallets, and some even rolled up their sleeves to help. “Something that I think could only happen in Olalla is happening now. Our friends Stuart and Mary Ellen [at the Olalla Vineyard and Winery] put up a GoFundMe account to help us get back on our feet.” It has raised over $50,000.

The Olalla Community Club wrote a check for $3,000 to help cover repairs. Olalla Food Center, a nearby convenience store that could be considered the market’s competitor, sponsored a fund-raising cornhole tournament and raised around $5,000 for repairs, Olsen said with a smile.

Several community members volunteered their time and sweat equity to help the store once it again opens its doors. “Every single day we have a core of regular volunteers — mostly retired — who show up and do anything that needs to be done,” Olsen said.

The hard-working group has earned the nickname the “Olalla Bay Market Wrecking Crew.”

“I think if you lived in another community and a store suffered a fire, I bet a lot of people would just say, ‘Well, they better get it open on their own, or whatever.’ I feel the people of Olalla love this thing as much as we do. And they are ‘all-in’ too. It’s really remarkable.”

Despite having to first learn how to run a store, putting in endless hours to remodel and update the business, then suffer the setback of the fire, the Olsens never wavered from their goal of reopening Olalla Bay Market, which they plan to accomplish by Christmas Day.

“We were down the day of the fire,” Olsen admitted, saying the blaze took a toll on their psyche. Still, the Olsens never gave up. “It was always going to be rebuilt. We would never give up on the place because we know how important it is to everybody, and to us too. It’s heartbreaking to have to start over, but there was no question that was what we would do.”