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Saturday, February 24, 2024
Feb. 24, 2024

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Market Trends: Hockinson Market a hopping community hub with house-made pizza, craft beer, more

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
11 Photos
Hockinson Market owner Jim Van Natta stands behind the taproom bar, located in the space that used to house the area's post office.
Hockinson Market owner Jim Van Natta stands behind the taproom bar, located in the space that used to house the area's post office. (TAYLOR BALKOM/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

If you drive through Hockinson, you can’t miss the cheerful white-and-red building with the aqua trim on the corner of Northeast 182nd Avenue and Northeast 159th Street. A mural of a cow advertises hard-scoop ice cream for sale inside the landmark Hockinson Market, a powerful enticement for those traveling to and from the area’s U-pick blueberry fields or Battle Ground Lake.

The cow is a nod to the building’s 1928 origins. It was constructed by the Hockinson Dairy Co-Op Association with a massive electric cooler in the basement where dairy farmers could store their products. Before that, the spot held a small country store built in the late 1800s by Ambrosius Hakanson; when he applied for a postal license, the U.S. Postal Service changed the town’s name from Eureka to Hockinson, an Americanization of Ambrosius’ Finnish surname. Now owner Jim VanNatta has put his stamp on local history with the Hockinson Market, a hopping community hub with house-made pizza and craft beer.

“We have a little joke: ‘Don’t tell anybody about Hockinson Market. It’s a secret.’ But that hasn’t worked, apparently, because we’re busy all the time,” VanNatta said. “We make so much pizza, it’s insane. We’re a pizzeria now.”

The store is decorated with vintage-look signs and antique tools, 1950s-era aqua walls and photographs depicting local history — a winning combination of nostalgia and newness that VanNatta credits to his wife, Teresa. Everything in the store is squeaky clean and neatly arranged, as if the 95-year-old store opened yesterday, perhaps because the building’s original materials have been repurposed wherever possible. Step outside, however, and you’re squarely in the present, with a phalanx of shiny solar panels adorning the roof.

Jim VanNatta purchased the store, then called Bud’s One Stop, in 1996. It was a convenience store with four aisles of groceries, freezers with meat and vegetables, a small deli counter and video movie rentals. The basement cooler (which had become meat lockers in the ’60s, when the building was owned by a butcher) had long since been turned off, leaking water and rotting the surrounding wood to a fine powder.

Jim VanNatta cleared out the basement, which is now used for storage, and kept the grocery aisles while adding a sandwich counter and taco bar, which proved successful. He said business was brisk for several years, then “the city moved closer,” bringing big-box stores within easy driving distance of Hockinson. Streaming services soon overtook video rentals. Meanwhile, the recession gained steam. Workers who used to stop by for lunch “just dried up,” VanNatta said.

“All of a sudden what was a very profitable business was not profitable at all,” Jim VanNatta said.

His accountant advised him to sell, but VanNatta decided to hang in there and see what happened.

Jim VanNatta revamped the sandwich bar to make take-and-bake pizzas. To avoid wasting the unsold pizza or two, he bought a box warmer, and then started selling cooked pizza by the slice. In 2011, VanNatta moved the kitchen to the other side of the building and bought bigger pizza ovens. He installed a ’50s-era counter and an old-fashioned milkshake maker. He removed two grocery aisles but kept enough staples to make a meal while expanding wine, beer and soda offerings. He moved the ice cream counter to a prime spot in front of the door.

“When we did the remodel, that changed everything,” Jim VanNatta said. “It still looked like an old store but it had new stuff.”

In 2016, VanNatta, a craft-brew enthusiast, turned the tiny former post office into a taproom featuring locally made beer and cider.

“We built a counter and put in a hutch from our house. It’s only 11-by-16, not a big room. But immediately people just absolutely loved it,” Jim VanNatta said. “They could drink anywhere in the store, but they wanted to come to the back of the store and sit in the ‘speakeasy’ and have a beer.”

Business was humming along at such a lively pace that Jim VanNatta invited his son, Justin, a graduate of Western Washington University living in Bellingham, to return home with his wife and baby to co-manage the store. Justin VanNatta said that working for his dad was “a very natural thing to do” and helped the business to grow in a more sustainable way, such as adding a deck in 2018 so that taproom customers could sip their suds al fresco. Now, in addition to working full time at the store, Justin puts his graphic design degree to work for nonprofits like the Hockinson Main Street Team and local brands like Battle Ground-based Whimsy Chocolates.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, the Hockinson Market was well-positioned to meet the high demand for takeout, churning out more pizzas and calzones than ever. New customers stopped in almost every day, Jim VanNatta said, for grocery items and locally made products like honey, soap and coffee. Back in the taproom, he removed seating to allow for social distancing and sold growlers to go.

The market’s Facebook page is a testament to its central place in Hockinson life. Many posts aren’t about the store but instead focus on local goings-on, like Hockinson Fun Days in June or the Hockinson Blueberry Festival, today from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“The community loves us and we love the community,” Teresa VanNatta said. “That’s what makes it so special.”

IF YOU GO

What: Hockinson Market

Where: 15814 N.E. 182nd Ave., Brush Prairie

Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Information: 360-892-1054; hockinsonmarket.com

Walk into the Hockinson Market any day from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and you’ll see exactly what Teresa VanNatta means: kids ordering ice cream and buying soda, families picking up pizzas to go, older customers perusing the wines and friends in the taproom sharing a craft beer or two.

“There’s a certain comfort here that you don’t find elsewhere,” Justin VanNatta said. “We know plenty of names and faces. We can help people. If they lost their cat, they’ll post a poster here. If they’re looking for a certain service, we usually know someone who can provide that. It’s truly the hub of the community and being part of that is beyond meaningful. It never gets old.”

Jim VanNatta estimates that 85 percent of his business comes from regular customers, although he loves it when first-timers stop by to ask about the pizza.

“They’re like, ‘Are you just making frozen pizzas?’ And we’re like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. We’re making pizza from scratch,’ ” he said.

Jim VanNatta, 65, said he now thinks of himself as the janitor, but when new customers see him sweeping the floor or cleaning counters, they’ll wisecrack that he must be the owner. Now that Teresa VanNatta has retired from her job as a third-grade teacher for the Evergreen Public Schools, he said they might travel. Still, the store acts like a magnet on Jim VanNatta.

“There’s probably zero chance of me up and leaving and not working at all, ever,” Jim VanNatta said. “I can’t conceive of myself not going into the store.”

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