It’s a bank… It’s a Starbucks… It’s a produce stand!
Locally owned Rainier Fresh has launched their produce stand and seasonal goods store at the former site of the Columbia Bank in Buckley, aiming to give local residents a much-needed new place to get fresh fruits, veggies and dairy products.
The fate of the building had been up in the air for years since Columbia Bank pulled out in 2019. Arizona-based Avalon Development applied with the city in the spring last year to retrofit the building for a Starbucks coffee shop, but those plans fell through.
Occupying the building instead is a soon-to-be produce stand run by local residents Taylor and Derek Muirhead. The store, which had its grand opening Nov. 25, is currently selling Christmas goods like trees, wreaths and seasonal gifts — winter is after all a hard time to sell solely fruits and vegetables — but by February they hope to be selling local produce. (They’ll also likely be looking for employees around then.)
With three kids, including one born just days after they got the keys to the place, the Muirheads hope to make Rainier Fresh a family business that can feed residents in Buckley who don’t want to make the trip to Bonney Lake or Enumclaw.
“We’ve lived here our whole lives, and we feel there needs to be more of a grocery store … (or) something where if you can’t go into town, you have a place to go to get what you need,” Taylor Muirhead said.
Located at 29290 WA-410, Rainier Fresh is perched in a coveted corner of the city. The intersection of highways 410 and 165 connects Buckley, Bonney Lake, South Prairie and Wilkeson. And it shares a parking lot with butchery Blue Max Meats — so while Buckley doesn’t have a true full-scale department store, residents will soon be able to cobble together dinner with a visit to the 410/165 intersection. (Buckley Foods, another small grocer, sits on the other side of 410.)
The obvious synergies of the location aren’t lost on the Muirheads. They already have an agreement to share the parking lot with Blue Max.
“We linked up right away,” Derek said. “The relationship just sparked instantly. … We’re helping each other out all the time, things like summertime big-tent sales in the parking lot.”
And that relationship doesn’t hurt Buckley’s “small-town” feel either, as the city continues to grow with numerous specialty stores. (We previously reported on fellow up-and-coming shop Rainier Creamery, though we incorrectly referred to it as the new tenant at the Columbia Bank building instead of Rainier Fresh.)
The Muirheads — who met at as students at White River High School — would help fill a gap that many cities would plug with a Safeway, Fred Meyer or Walmart.
“As far as bringing a meal to your family table, I think between the creamery, us and Blue Max, I feel like we could absolutely provide everything you need,” Derek said. “We’re not going to have stuff like (Top Ramen) … but anything you could need to make a meal for your family, I’d say you could get right here in town.”
The Muirheads are locals, but they lived in Puyallup for a year, where they launched a produce stand of their own around 2015. The business was successful but became a challenging time sink, so they switched back to regular jobs for a time.
Prior to launching Rainier Fresh, they’d both been working at AA Asphalting for 8 or 9 years. Derek was commuting to Seattle everyday for work, and the couple was looking for an opportunity to have more time with their three kids and to run their own business.
They wanted to model that dream after the Tacoma Boys Markets — an expansive local produce shop that served much of the variety you’d find at a larger grocery store.
One lesson they learned from their Puyallup fruit stand: “We wanted an indoor location,” Derek said. With their previous location, “when it’s windy, you’re cold. If it’s cold, you’re cold.”
By 2019, they were starting to look for a location. The empty Columbia Bank building fit the bill, so they called property owner Tom Dantzler and figured they’d toss their hat in the ring. Eighty-four-year-old Dantzler, who also owns Blue Max Meats, liked what he saw. He shared high praise for both businesses.
“I did my first mobile home park in 1968, so I’ve been in the development and real estate business for years,” he said in a phone interview. “(The Blue Max and Rainier Fresh owners) are the classiest entrepreneurial people I’ve met in my life. They’re so honest, so energetic, so ethical. … I’m just thrilled to be their landlord.”
The Starbucks plan fell through due to conflicts with city parking code, according to Building and Planning Director Emily Terrell. City code requires parking spaces to correlate to the size of the building they’re using. Starbucks said most of the Columbia Bank building would be used for storage since they didn’t need a building that big; the city concurred and said that Starbucks then shouldn’t need as much parking.
The city’s hearing examiner “stuck to the code,” Terrell said, and denied Avalon Development’s request in October. Starbucks took the denial and didn’t appeal, but may be looking at another spot on Highway 410, she said.
Concerns over the traffic also complicated the proposal, Dantzler said. Putting the coffee company on that block could have cranked up traffic at an already busy intersection.
The property also got interest from financial companies and a food supplier, Dantzler said. But a bank considering the property wasn’t sure the location could generate enough profit. And the food supplier got taken over by a bigger company, which wasn’t interested in launching a satellite store in Buckley.
In the meantime, the Muirheads “had this dream they’re doing now, to sell fresh produce and Christmas trees,” Dantzler said. “We met with them instantly. We, effectively, couldn’t find finer people.”
A FAMILY BUSINESS IN THE MAKING
The Muirheads signed their lease in August, and started tearing out tiled flooring, carpeting and other remnants of the bank and bringing in produce shelves and refrigerators. They spent around $50,000 to $60,000 in construction alone, Derek said, not to mention the months of work that went into turning a bank into a produce stand.
They said that aside from hiring two contractors to work on the sign out front and the sliding door, they did all the work themselves.
“We’ve had a lot of family help,” Taylor said. “It’s kind of become a family business. That’s what we’re hoping, anyway.”
The goal is to keep the food as local as possible, though planned goods like bananas and pineapples are, obviously, not quite amenable to growing in the Pacific Northwest. In the future, Derek plans to open up a room near the front to offer local dairy, like eggs and cheese, and bread, pies, cakes, “all sorts of stuff.”
Starting in March or April, they hope to have “bins of corn from Yakima, watermelon, apples, peaches,” Derek said. “And knowing it just got picked the night before, or even that morning, that’s pretty cool.”
But that will all take time, so the Muirheads are selling Christmas cheer in the meantime.
The store is currently stuffed with holiday items like Christmas plants for table centerpieces, garlands, ornaments wreaths in sizes from 20 to 32 inches and poinsettias, along with stocking-stuffers like biscotti, toffee and chocolate-covered cherries from around Washington. They also stock kettle corn from local Blue Barn.
Outside, they’re selling Noble, Douglas Fir, Fir, Nordmann Fir and Grand Fir Christmas trees sourced from Chehalis. Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m., they’re offering pictures with Santa at the store.
The store is hard to miss — just look for the sign with the big blue ‘R’ by the highway.
For more information, follow the store at facebook.com/rainierfresh and to find out when they begin selling produce.