Tucked amid the concrete buildings of downtown Olympia is a pleasant green oasis. Across the street from the downtown Olympia branch of the Timberland Regional Library, at the corner of Adams and 9th Street, you will enter an area, amid the concrete of the city, filled with fruit trees, vegetable gardens, picnic tables, flowers, and the sounds of trickling water joined by clucking chickens. It’s a quiet respite tucked in the middle of town and home to what might be the world’s tiniest grocery store, The Food Nook.
This natural hideaway is The Commons and part of the non-profit Fertile Ground, established by Gail O’Sullivan. She runs the bed and breakfast next door and says they originally started leasing the garden space in 2010. Throughout the years it evolved into a community garden for everyone to enjoy. “Research studies have shown conclusively that the presence of trees and green plants in a person’s life helps with healing, lowers blood pressure, and creates a sense of calm and relaxation.”
With such a wonderful response, Gail decided to take things a step further by offering another reason for guests to stay and enjoy the garden. An abandoned little garden shed seemed to her a perfect fit to create a coffee stand. Along with volunteers, they got to work improving the shed, first by adding electricity and lights to the small building. Next, the health inspector came out, but he had disappointing news. He couldn’t approve the space as a coffee stand. “We were actually walking away and I was feeling defeated and I said, ‘Stop a minute. If this was you, what would you do?’” His answer – a grocery store. And in that moment The Food Nook was born.
Because they can’t touch, portion, or heat food, only pre-packaged grab-n-go type meals are available. And the best part is it’s all local and fresh. Diners can choose from a variety of foods, like delicious hummus and pita chips courtesy of Ninevah, homemade Lucky Lunchbox sandwiches, sauerkraut from OlyKraut, raw food masterpieces from Rawkstar Creations and many other delicious delights. To wash down these tasty bites, The Food Nook serves Magic Kombucha, a drink filled with powerful probiotics made locally.
Gail says the food is barely marked up and she often hears customers saying they can’t find these items cheaper anywhere else. “It’s not our goal to really make money but to give people a reason to be in the garden. It’s more of a break-even proposition and it serves its’ mission well, bringing people into the garden, giving them a reason to slow down and ask questions and enjoy the space.”
Because of their proximity to so many state buildings and offices, Gail says she often sees people just taking a few moments out of their busy days to stop and literally smell the roses. “They just come here, soak up a moment of peace and quiet before they have to go back to their cubicles.”
Gail does say sometimes people enjoy the garden a little too much by eating up it’s contents as they wander around. She will often find people grazing and direct them to what they call the Pedestrian Food Corridor, which is the sidewalk bordering The Commons. “All the way around there’s berries, apples and pears and it’s completely up for grabs.” Volunteers maintain the vegetation and everything is fair game if you can reach it from the sidewalk. The actual gardens inside are used by various local organizations to educate. GRuB hosts a Seed to Table Camp for kids every year at the gardens and the grassroots movement Slow Food grows and showcases endangered and adapted foods from this area.
Aside from people picking the food, another challenge facing The Commons is Olympia’s transient population and youth hanging around downtown Olympia. But Gail has a plan – put them to work. “There are a lot of kids who feel a lot of ownership here, but haven’t yet had much of a chance to contribute. It’s an opportunity to create a volunteer program for the homeless, create reason for them to want to do things here.” She tells me a program is in the works to make this a reality and thinks it will benefit everyone involved.
As for other future plans, Gail says she doesn’t see things changing too much for The Commons or The Food Nook. “I kind of want to keep it how it is. Small is beautiful. I think less is good too.” She adds that the local owner is ready to sell though, so she doesn’t know what exactly the future will hold. “Next year our lease is up and we’re expecting someone will buy it – hopefully it’s either us, GRuB or the City of Olympia – someone that will want to keep it green space.”
With summer changing to fall, and rainy weather almost upon us, Gail says The Food Nook will probably be open for a few more months, weather dependent. In previous years, they’ve had a food truck parked adjacent to the property, extending their business into the colder months by offering hot food choices. Gail says if she can find a food truck that wants to do this again, she would be happy to stay open longer. “I love eating here and I really love the food and I miss it when it’s gone.”
Currently The Food Nook is open 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Learn more about The Food Nook and The Commons on their website.