Damon Grady and Amber Whittenberg want their first brick-and-mortar store in Maple Leaf to be a gathering place for locals to meet the Washington makers and growers behind their favorite groceries. At Local Yokels, which opened its doors in February, organic lemonade, goat milk soap and seasonings line the shelves and fill produce bins.
The business partners initially launched Local Yokels in 2017 as a grocery delivery service that sourced goods from Washington farmers left out of the mainstream market, such as those who are LGBTQ+, immigrants, people of color and women. Although supporting local small businesses isn’t a new concept, Grady and Whittenberg want to help customers deepen their connection to the state’s food pathways. In doing so, the business partners hope to work toward their ultimate goal of supporting a self-sustaining regional food system.
“What would happen if the supply chain stopped?” Grady said. “How we keep ourselves self-sufficient, and farms in the area strong, is part of our mission and how we stay prepared.”
The goal at Local Yokels isn’t to become Seattle’s most competitive natural market, but to be present in the conversation of improving food security statewide, Whittenberg said. One way they are working to improve food security, the business partners said, is by ensuring much of the market’s revenue remains circular, cycling to and from the pockets of the state’s farmers, food producers and artisans. In doing so, Grady and Whittenberg can offer their employees competitive wages and help small businesses by purchasing their products.
“When it comes down to it, the more money we spend within our community, the more money that stays within our community,” said Michaele Blakely, owner of Growing Things Farm in Carnation, which is part of Local Yokel’s growing network of Washington farms. “It just snowballs.”
Local Yokels also wants to give back to the community, using a closed-loop system to work toward zero waste, Whittenberg said. Since opening their doors, Whittenberg and Grady say they have maintained a carbon footprint 95% lower than a traditional grocery store by cutting waste, decreasing the use of plastic and using compostable packaging. They also learned during the pandemic that their delivery service could benefit the environment: Instead of people driving their cars to get groceries, Local Yokels delivered to them because it lowered customers’ risk of COVID exposure and was eco-friendly, reducing the number of people driving to shop.
Building community connections
Local Yokels, which is near Fifth Avenue Northeast and Northeast 85th Street, replaces neighborhood grocery store New Day Cooperative Distribution, which operated from May 2020 to last June. Transitioning into the space “would have taken years to be ready elsewhere” without the help of New Day owner Devra Gartenstein, Whittenberg said. In addition to helping her and Grady with the leasing process, Gartenstein also gifted them a walk-in freezer and refrigerator, which reduced Local Yokels’ expenses.
Today, the brick-and-mortar store offers customers a space to see the regional variety of what’s on the shelves and attend events like food producer showcases, local art sales and book club meetings. Grady and Whittenberg hope to build deeper connections with their customers so they can foster a community that supports local businesses and helps improve Washington food security.
As a queer woman, Whittenberg learned about economic barriers related to identity and class through personal experience, including seeing business owners of color around her struggle to succeed in her home city of Gig Harbor. These experiences led her to study art, business and sustainable agriculture, fueling her passion to invest in local communities.
As a Black business owner, Grady said he hopes Local Yokels’ success inspires others like him to join in supporting local businesses. Grady’s family has a rich history in the organic food movement: His father cofounded the natural grocer People’s Co-Op in 1978, which evolved into Central Co-op on Capitol Hill, and his aunt and uncle have owned and operated Bluebird Farm in Southern Oregon for over 35 years.
Outside of their industry expertise, the Local Yokels co-owners began building their business community in unexpected ways long before opening their Maple Leaf market.
Business owner Aliyah Davis, whose Black Magic Sweets macarons and cream puffs are sold at Local Yokels, met Grady when he still worked as an Uber driver. The two began talking business while he drove Davis to her weekend pop-up shop. From there, it was history.
“Reaching customers from their delivery service is one thing, but when you have a brick-and-mortar store, you are able to create a community where you are at,” Davis said. “I am excited to see the community they build there.”
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