Truly Terrifying Tales

Just in time for Halloween, these stories of the horrors of business are sure to elicit a scream

You’d scream, too, if you had started your day the way Stephen Trinkaus did a few years ago — his store had been broken into, tills ransacked, equipment vandalized and stock ruined.

Dan Hiestand
   An unexpected early morning call can often make even the most carefree person squeamish. And so starts this tale of business horror.
   “So, I got a call at five or six in the morning from the bread-delivery person saying that it looked like somebody had forced entry into our store,” said Stephen Trinkaus, owner and general manager of Terra Organica and Bargainica in Bellingham. “The only time I ever get calls that early is if it’s an alarm. I dialed 911, and threw my clothes on.”
   By the time he arrived at his store, Bargainica — a discount organic and natural-foods store at 902 N. State St. — the reason for the early morning call was evident. Trinkaus said he knew something was wrong when he noticed the store’s garage delivery door was propped open. However, he had no idea what exactly was in store for him until he saw the scene inside.
   “I opened it and walked in, and the place was … they did a job. They broke bottles everywhere,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief as he recounted the event. Aisles and floors were soaked in an assortment of condiments and oils, ranging from salad dressing to ketchup to olive oil.
   In addition to the Jackson Pollock-esque condiment collage on the floor, the perpetrators had discovered and emptied the business’s tills and stole a day’s worth of sales and bank change. They also made off with a computer, fax machine, copy machine and printer — as well as a couple of cases of beer and wine.
   For good measure, the vandals also ransacked employee lockers, dumped personal belongings out, and propped refrigerator doors open. As a final touch, they scrolled vulgar words on the store’s walls.
   Good morning!
   The Bellingham Business Journal presents a small collection of local business stories that may keep you up at night. There is something for every taste — except, that is, for the nervous.

The Case of the Missing Customer, or The Big, Green, Moldy Mess
   Dean Bates is in the business of disasters — or rather, cleaning them up. He is the president of Servpro of Bellingham, a cleaning and disaster-restoration business. The company does everything from cleaning soiled upholstery and carpets in homes and businesses to restoring property after flood, water, fire and smoke damage.
   “We get it right and put it back to the way it was, and make it like it never happened,” Bates said. In this story of flood-damage restoration and woe, Bates got things back to the way they were — but his client was nowhere to be found!
   “We had the whole job done,” said Bates of this particular job, which ran in the tens of thousands of dollars. “(The customer, a merchant mariner) was gone for months at a time, and he’d had a pipe break in an upstairs bathroom — it’s always an upstairs bathroom, never the downstairs bathroom — and water had run for several days.”
   He remembered the scene of the customer’s house.
   “The city had finally come and shut the water off after five or six days of water running down the driveway.” While the water was finally turned off, the fun had just begun inside the home, as the owner didn’t get home until about a month later. “By the time he got home, his house was a big, green, furry, moldy mess.”
   The damage had been done, and the merchant mariner hired Servpro to handle the job. Bates said the project was major — the house had to be gutted down to the studs.
   “It was a pretty major remodel of the house,” he said. “We got all done with the project, and the vendors were wanting to get paid. We wanted to get paid. We actually had the check in our hand, but we had to get his signature on it.” Only one problem: the merchant mariner was out to sea!
   “We need six inches of ink and he’s at sea, and we had no idea where he was or when he would get back,” Bates said. “We had to wait until he got home.”
   The waiting, he said, wasn’t pleasant.
   “That can be a long time when people want to get paid,” he said. “You’ve got all your vendors, your tile people, your floor covering, your carpenter — there is a lot of people involved, and they all want to get paid.”
   Since this incident, Servpro has adopted policies that ensure this type of scenario doesn’t occur again, Bates said.

The Case of the Battered Bridge, or Early Morning Terror
   For our next tale, we travel to the banks of the dark, swift waters of the mighty Nooksack River — which in this case also happens to be a place of great misfortune for the Silver Reef Casino.
   Again, as is the case with many tales of business horror, this one started in the wee hours of the morning as our story’s central character, Eric Larsen, drove to work in mid-August.
   “I was driving to work at 4 a.m. to do a live remote with (104.3 FM) KAFE radio, when my radio rep called and said, ‘The bridge is out,’ recalled Larsen, the director of marketing at the casino. “I said, ‘whaddya mean the bridge is out?’”
   The bridge in question connects Interstate 5 in the east to the casino across the river in the west via Slater Road. Without the bridge, the time required to travel from the Interstate to the casino is greatly increased, Larsen said — meaning business could be lost.
   Making matters more worrisome: About a week prior to the incident, the business opened its new hotel, spa and restaurant.
   “I was thinking, in my infinite wisdom, that the bridge would be closed for an hour or two,” Larsen said. “I show up at work and I hear that a tractor-trailer has hit the bridge and done structural damage, and the bridge is closed indefinitely.”
   In fact, the bridge only recently re-opened, after approximately a month of being closed. That period, Larsen said, was a challenge.
   “All of our marketing and advertising is related to being off I-5 at Exit 260 and four minutes west,” Larsen said. “The key component of that is the bridge crossing the river to get to the casino. So, as you can imagine, any disruption there — especially with the bridge being gone — and we’re no longer four minutes west. It’s turned into about 12 minutes west. Then you have to wind through — not necessarily a maze — but you’ve got to make a few extra turns. It’s not a straight shot anymore.”
   To alleviate the problem, the casino used temporary signage to direct traffic to and from the Interstate, and came up with a marketing scheme — called the “Busted Bridge Bonus Bucks” promotion — that gave casino patrons $5 coupons for slots or match play as a reward for making the extended trip. Following the bridge’s repair, the casino promoted a “The Bridge is Back” campaign to welcome customers back.
   “We tried to have a little bit of fun with it,” Larsen said. “That first week we took a hit (financially) before we could get the advertising out there and develop this promotion.”
   And while the catastrophe still gives Larsen chills, major damage was, for the most part, avoided, he said.
   “You start to worry if it’s going to affect the business enough that we are going to have to scale people’s schedules back,” Larsen said. “We’ve been fortunate in that it hasn’t done that.”

The Case of the Little Buddies, or Creepy Crawly Rats Oh My!
   Our final tale comes again from Mr. Trinkaus. And while his last tale of horror had a relatively happy ending — his insurance covered the Barga-nica damages and the lost business, and his stores now have security systems in place — this last offering doesn’t end so cheerfully.
   Before he moved his other store, Terra Organica, to the Bellingham Public Market in 2005, it was located at 929 N. State Street. This tale takes place at that locale long, long ago — 1997 to be precise. It was winter time, as Trinkaus remembered, and his store had some unwanted friends.
   “In the winter, when it got cold, the rodents — we called them buddies … so that we could talk about them and nobody would know, because we’re a food store — would come in because they were cold,” Trinkaus said. Of course, as a grocery store, this was not very desirable.
   “I’m Mr. Organic. I’m not going to poison them. I don’t want to kill them. So I figured we’d just keep them out of the building,” he said. “And I thought I plugged every hole, but somehow they were still getting in the store and eating stuff at night.”
   And this continued, until one night…
   “I brought my sleeping bag and I slept on the floor for two nights to figure it out,” he said. “They were coming in under the front door.”
   So Trinkaus put in a bar to seal them out, but there were too many, he said.
   “We ended up getting an exterminator to deal with the problem,” he said. “But I did my best to be nice to them.”
   Renegade rats, broken bridges, castaway customers and business break-ins: Business in Bellingham is certainly not for the weak-hearted. Pleasant dreams (cue evil laughter here)…



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