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Yakima Barbers Know The Right Culture Makes The Cut

By Dave Leder

Sometimes it doesn’t take long for the new guard to replace the old.

In the Yakima barbershop fraternity, the transition has taken less than 20 years.

Since Micahn Carter opened the city’s first urban-style barbershop, Yak Town’s Finest, in the late 1990s, a number of younger, hipper shops have come and gone.

The only other shop whose modern style compared back then was Jagz, which opened in 2001 and continues to have a devoted clientele on Summitview Avenue.

Carter closed his shop in 2012 to become a well-known pastor with the Together Church, but a number of his proteges continue to have a strong local presence.

J.D. Mares opened Behind The Chair on Nob Hill Boulevard that same year and has built a large following.

Matt Alexander and his brother, Chris, also worked with Carter at Yak Town’s Finest and both have been cutting hair for Jagz owner Joe Martinez for nearly a decade.

A number of their barber school buddies have lasted just as long.

But with the older generation retiring out of the business and the twentysomethings opening their own shops, guys like Mares, Martinez and the Alexander brothers have quickly become the old school.

“It’s cool for me to see the younger generation coming up because I feel like I had a hand in that,” said Matt Alexander, who has worked at Jagz since leaving Yak Town’s Finest in 2008. “I was one of the first ones to start this trend in Yakima, and it’s been fun to watch it grow.”

Mares feels like he’s made a fairly significant imprint on the Yakima barbershop scene, both during his time at Yak Town’s Finest and in the five years he has owned Behind The Chair.

He was forced to go out on his own when Carter left to commit more time to the ministry. But as it turned out, that’s just the boost he needed in his career.

“When Micahn told us he was hanging up the clippers, me and the other guys either had to find another shop or open our own,” said Mares, who attended the Elite Barber Academy with Alexander. “So I opened up my own shop the next week with five guys out of barber school. The guys working here have changed over the years, but we still bring in tons of people of all ages. This place is always packed.”

Even after five of his former Behind The Chair barbers left to help start a new place, the Barber HQ on North Seventh Avenue, Mares says his business hasn’t suffered.

The main reasons, he says, are the atmosphere and strict quality standards.

“To me it’s about culture,” he said. “People know it’s a fun place where they can bring their kids. But it’s also a place that’s known for doing great haircuts. All of the guys who work here have my stamp of approval, so if you work here, you know how to cut.”

Alexander agrees that having an open, inviting culture appeals to different groups of clientele.

Things like turning the music down and watching your language when kids are around — which is often at Jagz and Behind The Chair — has given certain places a reputation with families and middle-aged folks.

“In the past three years, we have seen a big influx of older customers because we offer a vibe and a culture that suits them,” Alexander said. “Our conversations are usually a little more mature and we aren’t blasting rap music the whole time. It just depends on what you’re looking for, and we are a place for anyone. You just have to be respectful of the house rules.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, Alexander’s daughter, Makenna, and his niece, Riley, were selling emonade to Jagz customers.

Televisions on the wall display sports and entertainment as light-volume music plays in the background. There are leather couches and chairs, while the west wall of the shop features a series of stand-up video games (talk about old school).

“A lot of shops are starting to look more like ours, with pool tables, TVs and that sort of thing,” Alexander said. “We want it to be a hangout, a place where kids can come. The whole idea when we started out was to be more than just a barbershop. We wanted to raise the bar, and I think we definitely have.”

 

Another young, old-school barber in Yakima who has tried to maintain a gentlemanly culture is Abimilec “Beemer” Leija, owner of two Fadeaholics locations.

He opened his Summitview shop in 2007, incorporating what he had learned at barber school with an artistic flair for urban style hair design.

Then in late 2015, he expanded to a space on Second Street, next door to the Sub Shop, hoping to attract more of a business crowd.

So far the strategy has worked.

“You see a little different crowd downtown, a little older,” said Leija, who says the Summitview location typically services a younger clientele. “We also get a lot of walk-in traffic. Just being downtown, near all the other businesses, has helped so much. It’s going pretty well.”

Location and reputation have helped Fadeaholics grow. But like Jagz and Behind The Chair, quality is job one.

“At both of our locations, our main focus is on customer service and quality,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in my work and I have a lot of passion for my craft. My focus — and all the guys who work for me, too — is on getting the details right.”

Leija has been cutting hair since he was 13 years old and received his training at Sakie International.

He has known Mares and the Alexanders since he got started, and he likes the camaraderie that has been established in the local barbering community. He believes there is a good mix of young up-and-comers and veterans to give the people of Yakima a choice.

“The younger generation coming up also has a lot of pride, so we never talk bad about anyone,” said Leija, now 31. “But it’s funny how things work; how quickly it changes. A few years go by and all of a sudden we’re the old school.”

 

Every barber — really, every artist — can trace his or her career back to when it started. While some of the younger barbers in town may not realize Micahn Carter helped bring the urban style to Yakima, they have undoubtedly been influenced by him.

Three of his most recognizable employees at Yak Town’s Finest — Matt and Chris Alexander of Jagz and Mares of Behind The Chair — have mentored many other young barbers in the area.

But Carter’s ability to bring people together and inspire them is ultimately what helped redefine the Yakima barber culture for the past two decades.

“Cutting hair is much more than a job to me,” Mares said. “It’s what turned my life around. I was in the streets, making bad choices, and Micahn was able to capture my attention. He showed me there was a better way, helped me realize what I could accomplish. He gave me the motivation I needed, and I found a career that has supported me and my family since I was 19.”

Mares now has two teenage sons and twin 4-year-old daughters.

He still cuts hair most days, but since he’s the boss he can come and go as he wishes.

It’s the only career he’s ever known and he looks forward to passing on those skills to his kids.

“Cutting hair is what got me out of the Yakima mess,” Mares said. “If not for guys like Micahn and Matt, I wouldn’t have made it this far. I feel like barbering saved my life.”

Alexander also credits Carter for showing him a different direction in life.

As a man of faith — his other job is youth pastor at the Stone Church — Alexander says Carter’s messages resonated with him on multiple levels.

“People would come in and want the haircuts they were seeing on TV, and the older barbers couldn’t do what Micahn could do,” Alexander said. “He helped change the Yakima barber culture, and a lot of guys went to school because of him. He saw our talent and potential, and steered us toward a good career path. None of what you see today would have happened if it weren’t for Micahn.”

Family-Owned Auto Supply Stores Still Fill A Vital Role

By Dave Leder

If you really look around, you can find a handful of family-owned and operated auto parts stores in Eastern Washington.

But every year — with every new chain store and every new e-commerce website — the options are becoming more scarce.

As AutoZone and O’Reilly stores continue to flood the auto parts market, the mom-and-pop stores have found it exceedingly difficult to hang on.

Those stores that haven’t closed down, like Chambers Auto Supply in Wapato and Zillah Auto Parts, typically operate under a larger umbrella like Federated Auto Parts, a national brand that has many local ownership groups.

A very small number of family-owned and operated shops exist today. (Word has it you can find them in Pendleton, Oregon, and Moscow, Idaho.)

However, that doesn’t mean the concept of quality customer service delivered by local technicians is a thing of the past.

“Service has become our niche, but you don’t want to lean too heavily on that because people have so many options nowadays. You also need to offer competitive prices,” said John Ibach, who owns the local Federated Auto Parts group with brothers Kevin and Jon Pitzer.

“We feel like our dedication to service and our staff’s knowledge base differentiate us from the competition. But we want to sell the oil and wiper blades, too.”

One way Federated has been able to set itself apart in the local markets has been its focus on agricultural parts and service.

The typical part-time chain store employee may not know the ins and outs of farming equipment like the Federated employee who has worked in the fields himself.

“We still understand what those towns are all about because we live here and we’ve spent time at every one of our stores,” Kevin Pitzer said, adding that all of his company’s decisions are made locally, not in a big-city board room.

“We have some guys who customers come to see specifically because they are familiar with old rigs or tractors. We see a lot of loyalty because of that expertise.”

Aside from taking care of their customers, one way the Yakima Federated group has managed to thrive in an increasingly challenging auto parts market is through corporate buying power and product diversification.

Federated belongs to a national buying group that allows them to keep prices competitive. But they’ve also expanded their business in recent years to focus on auto paint, a growing market segment.

“We’ve been doing very well the past three or four years by selling some of the top brands,” Ibach said. “We’ve been pretty aggressive with it in the Tri-Cities, and our Wenatchee store is just auto paint. Now we’re hoping it will take off here in Yakima.”

The Yakima Federated group owns 10 locations in Eastern Washington, including a parts warehouse on South Front Street.

Aside from Chambers and Zillah Auto Parts, their other local stores are K&U Auto Parts in Sunnyside, Gap Auto Parts in Union Gap and Yakima Grinding, the original machine shop opened by the Pitzers’ grandfather, Vic, in 1945.

They also have the Wenatchee paint shop, QMS in Quincy, House of Automotive Parts and Paint in Pasco, and Goldendale Auto Supply, which they acquired earlier this year.

 

E-Commerce Cutting Into Pie

Another local business in the Yakima Valley experiencing similar challenges is Triangle Auto Supply.

Like other locally based auto parts companies, Triangle has been feeling the squeeze from the national competitors, as well as the growing number of websites that offer similar product lines at steadily shrinking profit margins.

Even Amazon.com is getting in on the action. Industry estimates have projected the Internet giant will soon be selling $10 billion in auto parts alone.

“The e-commerce pressure is becoming really tough,” said James DeGrasse, who owns Triangle Auto Parts with his brother, Todd. “It’s a lot like clothing sales at department stores. People are going for convenience, and they can get their purchase delivered to them right away. That’s probably the biggest challenge we have going forward.”

Triangle, located on Arlington Avenue, off South First Street, faces the same challenges as other small auto parts companies. But like Federated, they belong to a national buying group that helps them keep prices competitive.

Triangle sells only imported car parts, and DeGrasse says owning that niche locally has allowed them to remain a force in the Yakima market.

His father, John DeGrasse, changed the focus of the business to become an import specialist in 1971, and that helped Triangle separate itself over the past 40-plus years.

The company also acquired a Napa Auto Parts store in Yakima six years ago, which allowed it to be more competitive in the agricultural, industrial and commercial transportation arenas.

But today, with national chain stores on every corner, not to mention big box stores that sell auto parts, companies have to figure out new ways to stand out.

It’s becoming harder every year, DeGrasse said.

“Surviving in this environment is hard because we’re being squeezed from all different angles,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re selling here in Yakima. As a small business owner, you’re battling every day.”

Like Federated, Triangle also prides itself on service. But DeGrasse says that while customer service and staff knowledge are crucial in a small market, price and availability usually win the day.

“When your car breaks down on a Sunday, you want it fixed now — not when your favorite shop opens on Monday,” he said. “What happens is they go to one of the chain stores and get what they want.

“We’re not open on Sundays, so we can’t compete with that. In a perfect world, we would hope people would come to us for our knowledge and quality parts. But everyone today is driven by convenience, and the choices are literally endless.”

The Triangle owners also recognize that they are fortunate to be in a market like Yakima.

Similar businesses on the west side of the state were swallowed up years ago by national conglomerates and consolidations. The chances of finding a family-owned auto parts shop in the Puget Sound region these days are slim to none.

DeGrasse says he is thankful that the local auto parts market didn’t get displaced like the locally owned pet shops when PetCo and PetSmart came in over the past 20 years.

“Yakima is unique because it’s just far enough away from the big city that we haven’t been the focus of a big takeover,” he said.

“Some of our survival can be attributed to the fact that we’re over here in a relatively isolated geographic area. But what happened to the pet stores is happening to other businesses, too. We just hope it takes a little while.”

 

Staying Optimistic

So if there’s no stopping the inevitable onslaught of big box stores and e-commerce sites, what does the future of local auto parts stores look like? Different, sure. But the locally owned businesses remain optimistic.

“We’re part of the communities we serve, one of those places you can have some coffee and talk for a while,” said Kevin Pitzer of Federated Auto Parts. “We have that extra experience, that extra helpfulness that people here appreciate. In small farming communities, that’s a big deal.”

If anything, Federated is looking forward to expanding its role in Eastern Washington, perhaps by stepping in and buying more stores like the one in Goldendale.

Whenever Federated acquires a store, they make an effort to maintain its local appeal. The owners believe their customers have come to expect that level of service.

“We have always been about serving small towns, and whenever we go somewhere new, we do our best to connect with them,” Ibach said. “We’re not a cookie-cutter kind of place. We’re not going to change things around.

“You tell us what’s important in your community and we’ll embrace it. That’s what sets us apart.”

Zillah’s Avalanche Distributing Becomes A Coffee Stand Staple

By Dave Leder

It started small and snowballed from there. Eventually, Dave Fergus and his buddies were buried.

That, in short, is how Avalanche Distributing was born.

Fergus started the Zillah-based espresso stand supply company out of his garage in 1995, delivering flavored syrups and other wholesale items to businesses around the Yakima Valley.

A few years later, when the espresso craze started taking hold, Avalanche started roasting coffee and launched the Valanga Gourmet Coffee brand out of its River Road warehouse in Yakima.

“It really was the coffee culture that drove our growth,” said Wanda Fergus, who has run the company with Dave’s brothers, Dick and Don, since Dave died in 2008. “We brought in the roaster in 1999 and things kind of went nuts from there.”

After a successful merge into the coffee arena, Valanga Gourmet expanded into baked goods in 2000. That move put Avalanche Distributing on the path toward becoming a mainstay in the Eastern Washington espresso industry.

Now the company provides everything but dairy products to 130 drive-thru stands in eastern Washington and northern Oregon.

“We used to be mostly in Yakima, but nowadays it’s only about a third of our business,” Dick Fergus said. “The Tri-Cities market really expanded a lot, and we also have a lot of clients in Wenatchee, Moses Lake and northern Oregon. But we’re not trying to take over the state. We have no desire to go to the Seattle area.”

After a highly successful first 10 years, business really took off in 2005 when a third Fergus brother, Don, joined the operation as a coffee roasting specialist.

That was also the year Avalanche moved its operations from Yakima to a 42,000-square-foot facility in Zillah, the former El Ranchito warehouse on First Avenue.

Today, Avalanche is the largest espresso stand supplier in the region, distributing coffee, baked goods and supplies from the Tri-Cities to Ellensburg; Moses Lake to The Dalles.

Their fleet of three vans and a box truck covers a 100-square-mile radius from their Zillah warehouse, traveling as far west as Hood River and as far east as Walla Walla.

With annual gross sales estimated at $4 million and more espresso stands coming on line all the time, the owners believe they’ve found a sweet spot in a competitive industry.

“One of our vendors tells us we’re an anomaly because there aren’t many companies left who do what we do,” Wanda Fergus said. “But we’ve had to work at it. We are working all the time because we’re competing against places like Costco and Cash & Carry as a wholesale distributor.”

Building Up Small Businesses

Avalanche and Valanga Gourmet products can be found all over the Yakima Valley, in varying capacities. Some places stock up on coffee, syrups, cups and baked goods, while other stands use one product or another.

For example, Sundance Espresso in Selah uses Valanga baked goods but offers a different brand of coffee.

Other recognizable Avalanche clients in Yakima are Tom Tom Espresso, Lincoln Avenue Espresso, Double Shot Espresso, Rush, The Mocha Tree, Manhattan Station, Stop N Go and the Coffee Shack. The company’s delivery route also includes Highway Coffee and Camo Coffee in Naches, plus Grinders, Karlee’s Coffee and River Canyon Espresso in Selah.

Each of Avalanche Distributing’s clients knows it is in good hands.

“Our level of service is what sets us apart,” Wanda Fergus said. “Our clients like that we come to them, and that we listen to their needs. We like being here to make their jobs easier for them.”

Exceptional customer service was a primary pillar upon which the Avalanche brand was built.

Dave Fergus believed in going the extra mile for his clients and his employees, and that was his motivation, even more than making a profit.

His mantra: “Too many companies let the bottom line control the way people are treated; I know it can be done better.”

One way the Avalanche team goes out of its way for its customers is to provide individualized service for each of the 130 espresso stands.

Unlike the large national distributors like Food Services of America, Avalanche Distributing will accommodate special orders and even make a special delivery or two.

“The best way to keep your customers happy is to do what you say you’re going to do and then follow up,” said Dick Fergus, whose wife Bernie also works at Avalanche. (All of the children in the family also have worked for Avalanche at some point in their lives.)

“After you’ve done this for a while, you get a pretty good feel for people. You’re able to build trust, and those relationships are what have made us successful.”

Avalanche isn’t actively looking to expand its cache of coffee kiosk clients. But at the same time, the owners are always looking for ways to help small businesses grow.

“We feel like we’ve been able to help a lot of other businesses over the years,” Wanda Fergus said. “Being a reliable partner for these people is why we’re still here, and we plan to keep doing it for a long time.”

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