A place infused with an “underlying really good feeling.”
By Oliver Lazenby
Megan and Noah Westgate are ready for you to know they own Rome Grocery.
That wasn’t the case in 2013, the year they bought the little store between Bellingham and Deming on the Mt. Baker Highway.
“The first six to 12 months we owned it we didn’t really tell anyone,” Megan said. “It was embarrassing because it was in such a bad state.”
The store was crowded with too many shelves and coolers. A contest to see who could find the oldest item turned up something that expired in 1993. The floor was covered in “probably about as much duct tape as carpet,” Noah said.
Even despite the store’s need for polish, it was far from the Westgate’s vision for it. When Megan and Noah took over on the first day of 2013, Rome Grocery was a typical roadside convenience store. Customers saw a rack of cigarettes as soon as they walked in and cases of Bud Light outnumbered six-packs of local beer.
Three years later, the cigarettes and Bud Light remain but they’re joined on the shelves by such local goods as hard cider and wine from nearby Everson, hazelnuts from Outer County Farm in Bellingham, organic chicken feed from Bellingham-based Scratch and Peck Feeds and Rome Grocery-brand honey produced in Skagit County.
They also started carrying produce, but removed it last summer in a belt-tightening response to the Washington State Department of Transportation closing their section of highway for repairs. But produce is coming back to stay, Noah said.
Megan and Noah see a need for those items in the area. The Westgates live 3 miles from the store. For them and their neighbors, the drive to Bellingham takes 25 minutes one way.
The store’s new owners are both driven by a desire to make quality food easier for people to get. Noah, who grew up in Everson, started an organic farm as a student at Pomona College in Claremont, California. The couple lives with their two-year-old son on 5 acres, where they grow vegetables and raise chickens, ducks and a goat. Noah recently finished planting an orchard with 50 fruit and nut trees.
Megan is the executive director for the Non-GMO Project, a Bellingham-based nonprofit that administers North America’s only third-party labeling system for foods that don’t contain genetically modified organisms. She also serves on the board for Bellingham’s Community Food Co-op.
While the Non-GMO Project takes an international tack toward helping customers get healthy food, Rome Grocery carries out the mission on a local level.
“It’s the macro and the micro,” Noah said. “It’s the international approach and the how-can-we-feed-our-direct-neighbors approach.”
As director of the Non-GMO Project, Megan may look out of place sitting at a table in the Rome Grocery, next to shelves of Sour Patch Kids and Cheetos. The couple’s goal, however, is to add healthy products, not remove unhealthy ones.
It’s a place where customers grab chewing tobacco, cigarettes and energy drinks, but also coconut water and kombucha, Megan said. Similarly, in her work with Non-GMO Project Megan doesn’t seek to ban or prohibit access to GMO products, just to inform shoppers of the difference.
A community hub
Tourists, skiers and hikers are a big part of Rome Grocery’s customers, but locals are the majority, Noah said.
“A lot of the current clientele live near here, grew up near here and have a place in their hearts for this store,” Noah said.
Kim Carson shops at the store all the time. His grandparents built the store and owned it in the 1920s, and his uncle owned it in the ’60s. His mother, Alice Carson, was born in the store in 1927.
Kim’s grandfather Constant hauled the store’s floor with a team of workhorses to its current location from Goshen, a pioneer town 5 miles north of Rome Grocery, according to Kim’s cousin Julie Kutschbach.
Kim said he takes pride in the store because of those family connections and he’s happy to see what Noah and Megan have done with it.
“[Noah’s] such a super nice guy. He always has a smile on his face,” Kim said. “All the help he hired – they’re just exceptional people.”
The history and community vibe is something Megan and Noah are trying to capture in their changes to the store.
“The underlying, really good feeling that I feel this building and this space is infused with – that is a lot of our inspiration,” Megan said. “We want to just let that shine.”
More changes coming
The duct tape and carpet floor is long gone – Noah replaced it with hand-milled old-growth deadfall lumber – and the store has undergone many other changes. But the current store hasn’t yet lived up to Megan and Noah’s vision for it, they said.
Noah’s next project is getting a full kitchen, which he hopes to accomplish by spring. He just hired a chef.
Noah is more involved with the store on a day-to-day level than Megan. Megan is busy – The Non-GMO Project exploded in the last 10 years. In 2006, she was the sole employee. Now, there are 20 employees in Bellingham and the nonprofit contracts five outside organizations across the country to evaluate products.
Media giants also regularly interview her. In the last year Newsweek, NPR and Fox Business have quoted her in articles about GMOs. Despite all that, Megan likes to be involved with the store when she can.
“It’s just the recognition that there are different levels to enact change on,” she said. “I am honestly a total homebody and I treasure my home here in Whatcom County.” x