How did running an organic-pizza joint in Fairhaven in the late ’60s prepare John Blethen to be successful with his cabinetmaking business 30 years later? Read on.
BBJ Photo/MARK MALIJAN
To look back at the lessons John Blethen learned as a first-time business owner is to look back a few decades, to the late 1960s. At that time, Blethen — a longtime community activist and business owner in Bellingham — was returning to the Pacific Northwest after graduating from Antioch College in Ohio with a teaching degree and a year of professional experience working at an inner-city school on the South Side of Chicago.
“The setting was Bellingham, 1969, and I was quite counter-culture,” he said. “I’d graduated the year that Coretta (Scott) King was given a degree, and Antioch was pretty active in the civil rights movement.”
He arrived in town in a Volkswagen Transporter with his daughter, ready to stir up the scene.
“Was that the summer of love? I don’t remember,” he asked, laughing. “I was 24 or 25, and really idealistic. I had long hair and a little beard and the whole hippy thing, and I was a pre-grunge grunge. I anticipated the grunge movement by a number of years.”
He also had an idea for a business.
“There was lots of opportunity, and cheap rents,” he said. “I had decided that I was going to build this alternative coffee house. (I figured) it would pay its own way on the one hand, and that it would provide a vehicle for helping to change society.”
In his own, localized way, Blethen did just that. Soon after starting the coffeehouse, the operation morphed into an organic-pizza restaurant called Toad Hall. The establishment was not just an eating venue, he said, but a community gathering place.
For Blethen, the most important lesson he learned was that his business could help transform a community into a more vibrant place. Business lessons come in all shapes and sizes, and business owners who heed these valued memories — good and bad — can avoid future mistakes and often enjoy more success.
Not just about money
Today, Blethen’s business, New Whatcom Interiors, employs about 10 people.
“If we have a problem, it’s that we are too busy all the time,” said Blethen of the company, which he started in 1979 — several years after Toad Hall was just a fading memory. Most of those reflections involved lots of work, when 100-hour-workweeks were the norm for the first-time business owner.
“I really have developed a strong sympathy for anybody that works in a restaurant or owns a restaurant, because the hours are so long,” Blethen said. “I think that is a lesson that most small-businesspeople need to learn. Most of us like to work and tend to work too much.”
While he said he hasn’t completely embraced that lesson, he has learned the importance of finding a balance.
“I like to work, and I value work. But you do have to try and have your life a bit more balanced,” he said.
A lot of the lessons Peggy J. Hinton learned were through her husband, she said.
Hinton, 69, is the sole proprietor of Strider Company in Bellingham, which oversees Strider Industrial Park. She first got into the business world in the 1950s with her late husband, Robert Hinton, when they were partners in a logging company.
She said the most important morals she learned — lessons she lives by today — are the powers of honesty and good communication.
“You’ve got to be totally honest; let the clients that you’re working with tell you what their needs are, and develop a good relationship with them,” she said. “It’s important to work closely with (clients) because it’s a partnership.”
Dorothy Tjoelker-Worthen’s comments mirrored Hinton’s regarding the importance of good communication.
“Ask lots of questions when someone brings you a project,” said Tjoelker-Worthen, who owned Textype in Bellingham for approximately 20 years until closing the company last fall. “Just keep asking questions and try to find out where they want to go with it.”
After working in the typesetting and graphic-design industries for the majority of her working life, she said she is also keenly aware of the importance of meeting deadlines.
“It’s your reputation on the line the whole time,” she said. “I had to deliver all my jobs when I said I would.”
As a businessman today, Blethen said he does reflect back on his Toad Hall experience, both for inspiration and as a way to stay grounded.
“One of the lessons (I learned) is that a business can help build local community, and that a business can respond to the larger context that it’s living in — that it doesn’t strictly have to be about money,” Blethen said. “A lot of the successful business owners are smart enough to realize that, and they (understand) they have a responsibility to the larger community and live in a context that is larger than their own business. It’s not just about the bottom line.”
He also learned about the importance of treating employees with respect, and to avoid impulsive decisions.
“I think over the years I’ve learned to count to 10 before I make a major jump,” he said. “And I try to be empathetic with my employees, which is something I’ve learned over the years through hard lessons.”
‘Now we all want to make money and have jobs’
When John Blethen arrived on the Bellingham scene in the late 1960s, the town already had a high place in the counter-culture hierarchy.
“At the time, there were like three or four really hippie cultural areas,” Blethen remembered. “One of them was Woodstock (N.Y.) and one of them was Eugene, Ore., and believe it or not, one of them was Bellingham. Although Bellingham was probably the funkiest one of the bunch.”
He said the area was attractive because it was an inexpensive place to live.
“At the time, housing was cheap,” he said. “Food was cheap. The biggest principle problem was finding a chainsaw to cut the firewood to keep your house warm. And you maybe (had to do) a little dumpster-diving to fill in to keep food on the table.”
When he first got to town, his plan was to start a coffeehouse with a partner after arriving from a one-year career as a teacher in Chicago.
“I think I had $500 from my teacher’s retirement from working at this inner-city school in Chicago, and that was pretty much my capital to start this business,” Blethen said. “We had an organic garden with goats and all kinds of stuff in Fairhaven proper. At the time, Fairhaven was basically empty buildings.”
And so they moved into a space in the district.
“We put this coffeehouse place together. We had teas, and we had some food, mostly sandwiches. But the format wasn’t working,” he said. “So then we tried a number of things. We tried guest ethnic cooker of the week. We tried to be a macrobiotic restaurant, and we discovered that people that ate macrobiotically a) didn’t have any money and b) never ate out. So that didn’t work out so well.”
Two things that did seem to work were pizza and fish, Blethen said. Fish wasn’t a good option for obvious reasons, he said.
“We couldn’t do fish because I couldn’t afford the ventilation system for fish. It’s just too stinky,” he said. “So we started doing pizza, and we decided that we would do the best pizza that we could do, which meant organic flour and using fresh ingredients.”
His partner soon decided to get out of the operation, but Blethen stayed on. Blethen said the restaurant featured a house bluegrass band, and hosted folk-dancing events as well as community benefits. Additionally, he said, the origins of the current Food Co-op originated at the restaurant during organized meetings.
“It was an interesting time. A lot of interesting people had been through this restaurant. A lot of bizarre things happened,” he said. “There used to be a guy that would come up every year that would only make left turns in his car. He wouldn’t make any right turns because he just didn’t want to make that kind of statement.”
On a more serious note, Blethen said experiences at Toad Hall helped fill a niche market — namely certain social services, such as being a de facto crisis-care clinic and recycling center.
“I got to know a bunch of seniors that were primarily alcoholic that I had responsibility for getting home,” he said. “We were taking in people and would find them a place to spend the night before that all got institutionalized. We had a little recycling station and we would take bottles back to Seattle when we’d go down.”
Looking back at the experience, Blethen said starting a business wasn’t something he planned to do after graduating from college.
“It had never occurred to me to start a business,” Blethen said. “It was not even on our radar screen. I kind of got into this through the backdoor because of other interests, such as my interest in community.”
The establishment also had brushes with fame, Blethen said: Toad Hall was mentioned in an issue of Rolling Stone, and counter-cultural figures Ken Kesey and Gary Snyder graced the restaurant on a trip to the area.
Fairhaven property shifts forced the business to move, and Blethen sold the operation in the early 1970s. Toad Hall under Blethen’s management was no more.
“One day, hippie times ended, and it was like — (space ship sound effect) — everybody decided they wanted to be something else,” he said. “Now we all want to make money and we all want to have jobs.”
Blethen eventually ended up earning his teaching degree in industrial technology, and started New Whatcom Interiors soon after. Toad Hall may be gone, but the spirit of community centeredness it fostered — such as buying locally — seems to be making a comeback around Bellingham, Blethen said.
“It’s interesting, because we’re kind of moving back to that again,” he said.