By Natasha Ashenhurst
In 1923, butter, eggs and cheese were grocery basics in high demand at logging camps throughout the Aberdeen area. Carl Erickson began his business the way many small businesses begin – he saw a need and filled it. His business, the West Coast Produce Company, supplied fresh food to camps throughout the Grays Harbor region.
His business prospered and Carl’s sons joined him. After World War II the family business was supplying neighborhood grocery stores with produce, dry goods and dairy products. In 1954, Erickson changed the company name to Harbor Wholesale Grocery and in the 1960s and 70s they started expanding their business into Olympia and areas surrounding Grays Harbor.
A pivotal moment in the grocery business happened in the early 1980s –the success of the supermarket model. “Large wholesale businesses catered to these large stores and left the smaller stores out of the loop, leaving that market open for Harbor Wholesale,” explained Justin Erickson, Carl’s great-grandson and present-day CEO of Harbor Wholesale. “Also, gas station models changed as well when they began offering convenience foods, and that opened up another market segment for us to serve.”
The company continued to grow and expand geographically. Eventually the company relocated to Thurston County in order to take advantage of distribution opportunities along the I-5 corridor. This led to expansion throughout Western Washington. “Several companies in our industry went out of business in the 1990s, so we acquired a large customer base as a result,” said Justin.
In the 90’s, Justin and his cousin, Scott Erickson, became actively involved in the company. Harbor Wholesale acquired other distributors in order to expand into a regional distribution powerhouse – a territory that now runs from Canada to Northern California and over to Eastern Washington.
Four generations of family leadership have grown the business from a small outfit supplying fresh food to logging camp to a multi-distribution center operation serving over 2,500 customers. Today, Justin serves as CEO and Scott is the COO. Justin’s father, Mike, is the Chairman of the Board.
The Lacey warehouse and administrative offices total 212,000 square feet with over thirty shipping bays, and more than 50 multi-temperature trucks loading and unloaded over 12,000 different products 24 hours a day, five days a week. The locally-owned business employs over 280 people. Harbor Wholesale is a testimony to four generations of hard work, business savvy and a willingness to continuously grow and evolve.
In 2012 the company name was changed from Harbor Wholesale Grocery Inc. to Harbor Wholesale Foods to better reflect the company’s emphasis on fresh food distribution. “The majority of our business is the smaller stores, such as country stores and gas stations. We also supply restaurants such as Brewery City Pizza and Casa Mia as well as local tribes. The University of Washington is a large customer too. We sell convenience food and products for people on the go, and yes, we still sell butter, eggs and cheese,” said Justin.
Today their business model is focused on sales and marketing. New store owners can call Harbor Wholesale and they’ll draw up plans for the store along with a suggested product mix. Next, they’ll provide diagrams and layouts for how the products should fit on the shelf. Finally, the Harbor Wholesale team sets up all the products on the self, including bar codes for easy reordering.
“We are data driven. It helps customers know what to put on the self. We offer our customers an annual reset where we’ll look at what they are carrying and what’s new and we help them rethink their product line,” Justin described.
Harbor Wholesale is also creating unique products for their customers. This year, they are launching a beautifully branded line of fresh-brewed gourmet coffee called Watertown. Watertown is a way for stores to cater to coffee drinkers who demand the good stuff, but aren’t interested in going out of their way to a café. “We are testing Watertown at the Chevron off Old Yelm Highway and Laura Street on the eastside of Olympia. We hope people stop by and try the coffee. Our plan is to roll it out to other stores this year,” said Justin.
Earlier this month, Harbor Wholesale announced a partnership with more than 400 Subway stores in western Washington and southeast Alaska. This agreement means adding 28 additional people to distribute food products to franchise owners from as far north as the Canadian border to as far south as Toledo, Washington. Justin is excited about this partnership. “Our reputation as a Subway distributor will open new doors for us in restaurant and convenience food distribution.”
They are also working with stores to increase customer’s access to fresh, healthy food. “We developed a Snack Right rack that contains a smattering of healthy products that are premium and often local. We include gluten-free products, apple chips, yogurt, salads and smoothies. We have to evolve to meet customers’ needs, and this is happening,” noted Justin.
Besides a focus on sales and marketing, the company also places an emphasis on simply building a great company culture. Justin said, “We are family owned, and we strive to treat everyone we interact with like extended family who then, in turn, treat our customers very well. Culturally, we believe that doing the right thing will bring us financial success. That translates into creating a fun place to work. People who work here are happy. A lot of our staff started here at the ground level and have grown with us and have had the opportunity to support their family.”
This hard work of building an excellent company culture is getting recognition throughout the region; Harbor Wholesale was voted one of Washington’s best workplaces by their team three out of the past four years in the Puget Sound Business Journal contest, and the Seattle Business Magazine recognized Harbor Wholesale as Washington’s Large Family Business of the year in 2014.
Over the last few months the Harbor Wholesale team has gone through a strategic planning process and they came to a very simple conclusion, a mission that will govern all that they do in the months and years to come—family and community are the reason they do what they do.
They are passionate about helping their customers succeed, which in turn helps small local businesses, from neighborhood stores, to local tribes and local restaurants. Their Lacey campus is a far cry from the small operation that began over 92 years ago in the forests of Aberdeen, but we think founder Carl Erickson would be very, very pleased.
To learn more about Harbor Wholesale Foods, click here.