by Ashley Lodato
Bluebird Grain Farms staff writer
For Mazama Store owner Missy LeDuc, it’s all about keeping things fresh and lively. From the produce to the pastries to the housewares to even the employees themselves, everything and everyone in the iconic Mazama cafe and general store seems to be infused with an internal bit of pep. Missy herself is no exception and is, in fact, quite likely the origin of the Mazama Store’s positive buzz of energy.
It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there’s a certain feeling you get when you walk through the doors of the Mazama Store. It’s an air of possibility, a hint of the unexpected, a whiff of indulgence, and mostly, a sense that whether you’re a daily regular or you’re stopping in for the first time, you are welcome in this place. This neighborly atmosphere is no accident; at the Mazama Store, it’s tradition. From its humble roots as a tiny 1920s way-station at the end of the road to its current iteration as an intimate marketplace with a surprisingly broad selection of food, beverages, kitchen implements, and gifts, the Mazama Store has for nearly a century been a watering hole in the hinterlands, a gathering spot for Mazama locals, and a place where, as the store’s motto promises, you can get “a little bit of everything good.”
When current owners Rick and Missy LeDuc bought the Mazama Store in 2007, it was with the specific intention of carrying out the Mazama Store’s tradition of providing quality edibles and hard goods in a community environment. Missy had worked at the store as an employee for the better part of a decade and “really loved the community feeling”; it’s partly what motivated the LeDucs to buy the store. Missy says that prior to the purchase, she took some time away from the store and “felt lonely in the community.” She continues, “you really do get a connection to Mazama by working at the store. In Mazama we can all just get isolated down our own driveways unless we get involved in things.”
Missy’s other incentive for owning the store was, of course, the food. “I just really love food,” Missy says without apology, voicing a sentiment shared by–oh, basically every living creature. “I really appreciated that so many of the products in the store were homemade,” she says, “and I was interested in exploring the food aspect of things at the store.” And explore she has, in the form of expanding the bakery, offering a wide selection of soups and sandwiches daily, and keeping the display cases full of irresistible pastries and breads, from rustic loaves to fruit pies to bagels to sel de mer baguettes. Everything in the kitchen is made from scratch, using the best ingredients Missy can source. For grains, naturally, Missy turns to Bluebird Grain Farms, not just because the Mazama Store’s chief baker is Polly Lucy, Farmer Sam’s sister, but also just because Bluebird’s grains make the freshest and best-tasting whole grain flours available. “Our Emmer Loaf is one of our most popular rustic loaves,” says Missy, noting the bread’s heartiness and nutty flavor derived from Bluebird’s organic emmer flour.
Missy is such an advocate of Bluebird’s grains that she says “We wouldn’t even do a whole grain bread if we didn’t have Bluebird flours.” She continues, “You can taste the difference. It’s very obvious. You use a whole grain flour from somewhere else and it just tastes dead; Bluebird’s flours are fresh and lively. You can’t compare anything else to Bluebird.” Missy notes that the Mazama Store sells a lot of whole grain bread, all of which is made using Bluebird flour. “People really look forward to it and reserve it ahead of time,” she says. “We truly feel that using Bluebird products makes a difference to our customers.”
Other things that make a difference to Mazama Store customers? The inviting atmosphere, check! The fresh locally-roasted java from Blue Star Coffee Roasters, check! The impressive selection of beer and wines, of gifts, of bulk food items, of Husky ice cream, check! The summer pizza nights on the patio, check! But it’s the employees who really give the store its character. “They’re really lovely people,” says Missy. “I enjoy working with them so much.”
Missy continues, “I want my employees to have the best pay they can get. We want to keep them; they’re part of our family.” But she acknowledges, “It’s still so hard to make a small business pencil out. We are constantly working to keep the business profitable while paying our employees a living wage.” This concern feeds into what Missy refers to as “the 3 prongs of sustainability”: longevity of the employees, longevity of the business, and longevity of the planet.
To address planetary issues, the Mazama Store has taken a close look at the waste it generates. “We look at how things come to us and we try to minimize packaging,” says Missy. “When you own a store you really see how things arrive. We make many ordering decisions based on not just the quality of the product, but also the amount of packaging involved.”
Where the store has really been able to make a difference is its approach to food waste. First of all, employees strive to minimize, if not eliminate, true food waste. “We are very creative,” says Missy. “With the bulk items, we don’t like to let them sit in the bins too long before we incorporate them into the kitchen. Same with produce–we only want the freshest things out in the store, then we take the older items back into the kitchen to be made into soups. Fruit is made into pies, or apple butter, pear butter, or pastries.” It’s the reason there is no published menu at the Mazama Store; the kitchen needs to have the creative freedom to look at what needs to be used and design menu items around those ingredients. Food scraps are composted by locals who pick up buckets of food waste; someone else picks up leftover milk from the espresso machine and feeds it to her pigs. “It’s very rare that we throw anything out,” says Missy.
Mazama Store employees hold regular sustainability meetings, coming up with solutions for reducing waste. One employee idea resulted in the store re-using shipping boxes to send customers’ groceries home with them; another employee came up with the system of using canning jars for to-go soups, instead of disposable containers. “We don’t even think about those things anymore,” says Missy, “we just do them. And then we’re on to the next idea. It’s creative for everyone–it keeps us energized.”
The Mazama Store gracefully dances the line between folksy and sophisticated, with a carefully curated selection of clothing, mugs, glassware, gifts, and toys augmenting food offerings that would rival those in a chic urban market. Both the store’s shelves and its website promote the work of Methow Valley artisans and growers. This is important to Missy. “The quality of what we offer would decrease if there weren’t local and regional growers out there being successful,” she says. “We feel proud and notice the difference in taste, we see the difference in quality.” Missy believes that more collaborative promotional efforts amongst local providers would benefit everyone; it’s why she devotes a significant amount of website space to other local businesses. “We should all be doing this in the valley,” she says.
Despite a solidly upscale range of products, the store retains a comfortable character. It’s not just the scuffed floors, battered by ski boots. Nor is it the fact that the employees seem to greet nearly everyone by name. It’s more just the atmosphere that comes only from an independent business–a mom-n-pop store, where you know that mom and pop (and in the LeDucs case, most of their children) actually work there and care deeply about the business.
For the LeDucs, the Mazama Store is truly a family business, with Rick, Missy, and their 4 children all working at the store at various points. Although their youngest daughter, Sylvie, is in China, the other 3 LeDuc adult children all work at the store, as well as being involved in the community. Missy manages to find a balance between home life and work life by getting outside whenever possible, and taking little trips out of the valley with Rick here and there. (“Although when we travel I am always looking at other general stores, getting new ideas,” she admits.) But much of Missy’s energy is derived not from being away from the store, but from being right in the thick of it. “I have to put a lot of time into the store,” Missy says. “It’s like an organism that’s changing and growing. I need that, otherwise I wouldn’t enjoy it.”
Missy says that customers, too, feed her energy. “We have really wonderful customers,” she says. “We have our locals who we know and love, who come in to visit and talk about things weighty and trivial. And then we have our part-time customers. The part-timers work really hard in their other lives to be able to come here, so when they’re in Mazama they’re in a really good mood. They want to say hello at the store, they want to enjoy the outdoors.” She continues, “We don’t seem to be just a convenience store for the part-timers. They know our employees by name. They want to get to know the locals. It’s really special for me to watch.”
Missy appreciates the Mazama Store’s customers in the bigger picture as well, because they are choosing to support a family-owned independent business. “In this world of WalMart, Amazon, and Costco,” she says, “you need to value your small businesses. If you don’t actually physically go and support them, they will disappear. New laws don’t favor small businesses. You need to go to your local store, get to know the people there, and support them.” This is no selfish request, motivated by personal gain. Missy reminds us that small businesses like the Mazama Store allow employees to earn a living locally. “These small businesses are supporting the people in our community,” she says. “Our employees–this is our community. We’ve seen other places where small businesses close and people have to move out of the community to find work. We see it back east. To me this is a big blinking red light–you need to cruise your towns and support your local stores.”
For more information about the Mazama Store, visit their website or stop by Mazama Junction and experience the Mazama Store for yourself.