The lovely shop and owner are celebrating a big anniversary and the cherished position they have gained in society

There is a Whidbey Island company that has been in the same location since its founding in 1917. What’s more, it has only had two owners for the past 100 years, and this year its current owner is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary in charge.

It is Copeville’s Central Prairie Market and was bought by Ken Hoffkamp and two partners in 1972 from the Pickard family, who had owned it since 1921. Ken was only 24 years old when he became head of Central Whidbey Grocery.

He’s a soft-spoken guy but looks back over the past 50 years with great satisfaction. He’s not planning a big party, but this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. he’ll be handing out sausages, coffee, cookies, and free ice cream bars as a thank you to the community.

“We have a loyal customer base and have had some great longtime managers and employees,” he said, adding, “And we have a good selection for a convenience store. We’ve never added a square foot of space to the flagship store, but we’ve managed to compete with Safeway and other big stores in Oak Harbor.” (The Prairie Market is about 10,000 square feet in size. Safeway has about five times that.)

Former Mayor of Copeville Nancy Cunard, who worked for several years as the office manager of Hoffcamp, added another reason why the Prairie Center market remained successful despite the competition. “This is more than just a grocery store,” she said. “I call this town hall down south, the place where people in our neighborhood meet and greet and also do their grocery shopping.”

The world has changed dramatically since Hofkamp arrived at the store on the corner of South Main Street and Terry Road. When he bought it, it was still called Prairie Mercantile, and in addition to groceries, it sold clothes, appliances, garden equipment, and even guns and ammunition. At the time, Whidbey Island was mostly a rural place with plenty of farms, a large naval base, and relatively few tourists. In 1970, Island County had a population of about 27,000; By 2020, it has more than tripled to 83,000.

Prairie Mercantile opened in 1917 to serve farmers at Ebey’s Prairie, selling everything from livestock supplies to lumber to mattresses and sewing thread. The Pickards—first Moretz and his wife Ernestine and then their son Herb and his wife Muriel—became beloved pillars of the community by extending credit to farmers during the Great Depression and generously supporting local organizations.

By the time Hofkamp Upon arrival, Highway 525/20 from Clinton to Deceit Pass has been open for only eight years. Traffic was generally light, and relatively few tourists made the trip to the island.

Hoffkamp was born in Minnesota and moved to Oak Harbor with his family when he was nine years old. He graduated from Oak Harbor High School in 1966. While in his junior year, he began working at Payless Foods, which at the time owned a supermarket in Oak Harbor. (Payless later moved to her department store in Freeland.)

become close to Robert Blaine and his family, the owners of Payless, made his way from a boy to various positions at the managerial level. Blains and another Payless manager named Ron Huff became lead partners with Ken Hofkamp to put together the deal to acquire Prairie Center Market. “Being a ‘kid’, they decided that I would be the one sent to Coupeville to manage this new acquisition.”

Hofkamp bought Blaine’s stake in the mid-1980s and acquired Hof in 1996, eventually making him the shop’s sole owner.

“The first two decades here were a struggle,” he recalls. “Everything was very old and we had to do a lot of remodeling. We took advantage of any money we were making because it was too expensive to borrow.”

When he arrived the store had no coolers except for a small milk cooler that was far in the back. It had a small freezer section. The product consists of a small 20-foot canister near the storefront. In 1972, cash registers were old models with push-buttons. Everything had to be priced individually; Scanners haven’t been around for more than 20 years.

Biggest change through However, the years have been on store shelves to cater to the changing tastes of consumers. When he took charge, the store was divided into three aisles for groceries, three aisles for clothing and three aisles for tools, including guns and hunting gear. At the back of the store where the large produce section is now a garden supply area with shovels, gloves, seeds, and other tools.

Today, the produce division occupies a large space in the back to meet customer demand for fresh fruits and vegetables and, increasingly, organic varieties. Outside the shop in the warmer months a large tent is set up selling everything freshly harvested on different farms.

The meat case is now much larger to meet the increasing demand for varieties; Al Barari Center has its own meat cutting and packaging department. Freezers now occupy both sides of the aisle to accommodate the greatly increased amount of frozen food now available.

Another change: Outside on South Main are two petrol pumps that have been around for at least 30 years before the arrival of the Hoffkamp. He kept it for another 30 years before tearing it up in 2013, deciding that it was no longer a grocery store business. By that time, gas stations had multiplied all over the island.

Removing the pumps gave Hofkamp the opportunity because he had always wanted to sell plants and flowers abroad. It’s one of his favorite parts of the store, and he’s often seen in the morning, holding a hose, watering various plants and vegetables starting on the outside shelves facing South Street.

Another change occurred In 2012, when voters in Washington approved an initiative that would allow grocery stores to sell strong liquor. Al Barari Center Market has installed a long shelf in front of the cash boxes that offer a variety of spirits.

Given all these changes over the past 50 years, have you ever considered building a larger, modern Prairie Center market? There was an opportunity for him to build a new store when Coupe’s Village was established on Main Street in the 1990s. But he decided that the space there wasn’t much bigger than it was, so he stayed in the original location. “Instead, I bought some surrounding land to expand our car park and eventually bought the adjacent timber yard,” he said. (This is now leased to Frontier Lumber.)

The kid from Oak Harbor who has taken over the market has since become a beloved column of the Central Whidbey community. He has served on the Coupeville City Council, the local Chamber of Commerce boards, the Island County Historical Museum, the Lions Club, the County Economic Development Board, and the local food bank. He has been a coach for the junior league and president of the Central Whidbey Athletic Council.

So, at the age of 74, Are you thinking of retiring or selling the business? “It’s running smoothly and I don’t have to work as hard as I used to,” he said. “I love coming to work. But I suppose if someone came along and wanted to buy it—and he was the right person—I would probably sell it. Check the emphasis in what he said there. “Right person.” Like it was in 1972.

Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and now lives in Downtown Whidbey.

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