The end of an era for Terra Organica and the Public Market
The closure of Terra Organica and the Public Market came after several months of struggling to keep the business running. // Photo by Kelly Pearce
By Gwen Roley
Terra Organic & Natural Foods emptied slowly after it was announced they would be closing in a Facebook post on July 25. There used to be pops of color from produce and unique natural brand labels but as these ran out, they gave way to the building’s hidden gray. Despite this industrial overhang, people were still doing their best to go about things in a normal, cheerful way.
Machines beeped as people got their merchandise rung up. The owner and general manager, Stephen Trinkaus, was at the front of the store, greeting customers and thanking them for coming in. They chatted about how long the store has been open and how many of them have been coming in since the beginning. One person gave Trinkaus a bow while extending a piece of healthy purple cabbage. All of them said they will be back at least one more time before the end of the liquidation sales. Once all the store’s stock was gone, Terra had until the end of the lease on Aug. 31 to empty all parts of their business from the building.
After a several month-long fight to balance the books and keep the business running, Trinkaus announced the store was shutting down. For many years, Terra has been the only independent organic and natural grocer in Bellingham. Terra Organic & Natural Foods — sometimes referred to as Terra Organica or just Terra — was the main business in the space known as the Public Market. The smaller businesses — Ambo Ethiopian Cuisine, Electric Beet Juice Company, Film is Truth, Living Earth Herbs, Maki Sushi, Mount Baker Books and Wild Whisper Cafe — were renting out space in the building and had to find new locations once Terra closed.
The way Trinkaus described it, his whole adult life seems to have led up to the idea of Terra and natural eating. When he was a student at Western, he worked at a now-closed factory by the waterfront called Bellingham Frozen Foods where they processed local produce. There were a lot of migrant workers there, and since Trinkaus spoke Spanish, he befriended some of his coworkers and would occasionally act as a translator. These relationships were his first introduction to the struggles and dangers many workers face in the food industry. This was driven home even further by a lecture he saw by César Chávez, at Western in 1991, he said.
“One of the things that really hit me was [Chávez] talking about the incidents of cancers or birth defects among migrant farm workers because of their exposure to industrial chemicals and pesticides,” Trinkaus said. “I walked out of there pretty devastated, and because of my connection with the community, it really hit me harder than it typically would a middle-class white guy.”
Trinkaus is in his fifties, has grayish hair, glasses and is soft spoken. However, he constantly checks his privilege and reflects on ways he can use it to help change the system. He speaks animatedly about the younger generation’s duty to smash the patriarchy and how much needs to change for our society and economy to become more fair and balanced. So, it makes sense these words from Chávez are what moved him toward the path to opening Terra.
He said he started eating organic and shopping at the Community Food Co-op, a member-owned natural grocer. After he graduated later that year, he started working in a factory pressing organic flaxseed oil. This experience exposed him to more information about nutrition and organics and lifted the rose-tinted glasses even further.
“That’s where the idea for the store came from. I assumed that when you shopped at a health food store they wouldn’t sell you stuff that wasn’t really healthy. But that turned out not to be the case,” Trinkaus said. “I decided to start my own business and do it right. The idea was that we would resource everything so we would just have the purest, best stuff.”
The original Terra Organic & Natural Foods opened on March 21, 1997 at 929 N. State St. The original building and The HUB were on the same block and are set to be demolished to make way for student housing developments. Bellingham shoppers embraced the small store right away because many believed in Trinkaus’ philosophy. Even then, Trinkaus said, the building was not in great shape and the business outgrew the space. Soon, he was looking for a new place to house his grocery.
Trinkaus would bike past a place called Crazy Prices, where they sold returned items from places like Costco at a reduced markup, at 1530 Cornwall Ave. nearly everyday. He used think about what a great space it would make for a business like his. This building had much more space than his store’s location at the time. One day, he walked in and asked if they would mind sharing the space. It turned out they were looking to move out entirely, but Trinkaus still needed to find other vendors to share the lease with to afford the building. Thus, the Public Market, with its shared vendor spaces, was born.
“Leasing to these people is like having roommates. It’s not for the weak of heart to figure out how a place can work for all these people,” Trinkaus said.
Ashton McNeely, an employee at Electric Beet Juice, said having a lot of vendors in one space generates a lot of traffic for everybody. Most people working at one of the vendors were a frequent shopper at all of the businesses.
“All of the businesses support each other,” she said. “We kind of connect over food.”
The new iteration of Terra and the Public Market opened on May 17, 2005. Trinkaus added he remembers this because it’s the same date as his son’s second birthday. With this new location, a mission statement that was attractive to Bellingham consumers and other vendors leasing the space, business continued smoothly for the next few years.
“I don’t like big stores at all, you know? A Costco or Walmart or Fred Meyer is just overwhelming for me, I get sensory overload from it,” Trinkaus said. “So, I think there are people out there just like me who enjoy small stores that aren’t crowded with not a million choices.”
Soren Burns was Terra’s wellness buyer and said she chose to work there for the opportunity to educate customers about what was in their food.
“It’s not like any other grocery store,” she said. “The smaller store really provides a community mindset.”
In 2012, Trinkaus said he took terrible care of his business. Terra became overextended, and Trinkaus had already gone to the investors to tell them he couldn’t move forward because they didn’t have the cash. Stressed out and reeling from a terrible headache, he got his first bit of sleep in a few days and woke with an idea of how to save his business.
“I’ll ask the community,” Trinkaus said.
Trinkaus posed a plea for support and people came in droves. The Co-op encouraged customers to shop at Terra, and some people bought all their groceries there. Many loaned or donated money to get the business back on its feet. This was the response Trinkaus was trying to recreate in May 2018, when he sent out another call for help over Facebook as his business began to spiral again. There was another wave of support, and for a few months it seemed as though Terra could continue to soldier on. Now, has concluded its liquidation sales.
“It feels like I ran a marathon and people said, ‘You will never, never finish this.’ I felt like I could never finish this because it was so daunting,” Trinkaus said. “I felt like I was a literally inside of the finish line and just collapsed.”
Trinkaus can still laugh at the tragic irony of the store ending now instead of back in 2012. He acknowledges all his business mistakes from six years ago and sees Terra’s comeback as something the community accomplished together. This oncoming closure is something he blames more on market forces.
The obvious precursor is the opening of Whole Foods, which was a serious encroachment on Terra’s market at a location less than a mile away. But Trinkaus points out the forces at play here are much bigger than that. He says consumers have to take a step back and look at the entire culture of eating organic and natural foods. These perspectives have shifted from being about organized resistance against economic paradigms to being about individual lifestyle choices. Trinkaus raised his voice passionately when he talked about this.
“People say, ‘I’m going to drive a hybrid car and eat organic or be vegetarian or be vegan.’ Those are choices; things you make as an individual hoping that billions of people make that same choice so we’ll actually have an effect,” he said. “Which of course never happens. But we’re sold on that and the organic industry goes along with that.”
This shift corresponds with a strong and consistent increase in American consumption of organic foods, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services. This has led to the success of companies like Whole Foods, as well as other large grocers, such as the Albertsons-owned Haggen, attempting to capitalize on the desire to eat organic. With all these huge corporations taking up all this space in the market, it is difficult for an independent business like Terra to survive. Trinkaus also points to economic factors more specific to Bellingham.
“[People] are spending half their paychecks to live in not the greatest places with a lot of roommates,” Trinkaus said “So, I feel like there’s a lot less disposable income here, especially for people who aren’t professionals or didn’t get in the real estate market early.”
At different points in the last year, rent in Whatcom County has risen at a rate faster than Seattle, one of the largest housing markets in the country.
Now, the huge space on Cornwall Avenue sits vacant.
As the customers strolled in for the final sales, Trinkaus continued to talk with them, putting on a smile to let them know he appreciated them coming in. Trinkaus said there are a handful of people who moved to Bellingham when they found out a store like Terra existed. One woman stopped with a cart full of bulk grains and canned food to tell him that not only her, but also her parents had been coming in since the beginning. He thanked her and said he hopes to see her again before they close.
“I almost want to cry. What if I never see her again?” Trinkaus said. “I don’t know. It’s so hard and there are hundreds of people like her.”
The other vendors in the Public Market continued to operate as usual but are now in the position of relocating or permanently closing, like Terra. Film Is Truth has already moved to a new location at 1418 Cornwall Ave. in a shared space with Allied Arts and the Pickford Limelight.
Trinkaus said he doesn’t know what’s next for him. He railed about how terrible the job market is in Bellingham and joked about going even deeper into the organic industry and starting a small farm. He said his ideal job would be something that would allow him to call out corporations for appropriating the organic movement for profit.
“‘Professional caller of bullshit,’ I like the sound of that,” he said. “We need to call bullshit on what the organic industry has become and we need to get back to what it was supposed to be. Or something else has to take its place.”