WALLA WALLA — Merchants Ltd., downtown's deli, market and pioneer of Main Street's modern-day culture, has been sold.
The business, reputed by owners as the first in Walla Walla to offer espresso, the first to bring back sidewalk seating and the first of its kind to go smoke-free, will celebrate its last day with a New Year's Eve bash before new owners Tom Maccarone and Jake Crenshaw take the reins.
Owner Bob Austin, who unlocked the door on the first day his parents opened the business in 1977, said he will be the last to lock up before turning the key over.
"The Merchants name is over," Austin said. "It's bittersweet, but it's not nearly as bitter as it is sweet."
Maccarone and Crenshaw, co-owners of downtown's 4-year-old Italian restaurant T. Maccarone's, will re-open the business in mid-January as Olive Marketplace and Cafe.
The new business will operate in addition to T. Maccarone's, owners said. The Colville Street bistro will continue its daily dinner, lounge and weekend brunch service while moving lunches to the larger 5,000-square-foot caf and market at 21 Main St.
Terms of the purchase of Merchants were not disclosed. However, the acquisition of the iconic deli under the green awning is an answer for owners of both businesses. Maccarone and Crenshaw have long wanted to expand their operation but didn't have the space. Austin has long wanted to retire from his business, which had been for sale since 2004.
"The fact that we can sell it to locals who are passionate about their own business and this one and its history is a thrill," Austin said.
In just over three decades of operation Merchants has amassed a storied history.
Austin's parents, Chuck and Norma Austin, originally opened what was intended to be a gourmet grocery and deli in an 11-foot-wide shop with four tables and seven chairs. Bob Austin and his brother, Mike Austin, helped run the family business.
"We originally didn't intend to be a restaurant," Bob Austin said.
"We hadn't been here 15 minutes before it became clear what people wanted us to be. It threw us into an identity crisis. We wanted to be a deli and yet we were perceived as a restaurant."
With few downtown restaurants, the neighborhood was craving a spot for lunches, he said. Merchants filled that void, offering an array of sandwiches and freshly baked goods in the historic 1880 building at 21 E. Main St.
A selection of 50 cheeses accompanied an array of cured meats in the deli case in 1978 -- long before the boom of the wine industry came in pairing Gewrztramier and Gruyregre. With the newfangled espresso served there with a machine picked up by the family in San Diego, the business was on the cutting edge for hard-to-find items.
"It's kind of a testimony of the sophistication of this little cow town," Austin said.
Over time the business expanded into neighboring storefronts and up into the mezzanine area of the building. It became a hub offering rousing live music performances, Wednesday spaghetti nights popular among the Whitman College crowd and a vast meeting space for everything from wedding receptions to political powwows.
In 1984 Merchants hosted an Appellation Celebration. Every winemaker in the Pacific Northwest gathered there that year. There were 18 -- now as many as one might meet just at the Walla Walla Regional Airport Industrial Park. "It was a great party," Austin said.
The space, with its old, wood floors, brick wall and airy expanse has always been part of the draw. Over the years the business hosted dignitaries (former Speaker of the House Tom Foley ate his oatmeal at Merchants when he made trips to Walla Walla), businessmen (the late former president of Baker Boyer Bank, Baker Ferguson used to bring an armload of ledgers and do his "homework" there) and even celebrities (folk singer and activist Joan Baez sat at the upstairs table overlooking Main Street during trips to Walla Walla to visit Whitman College).
That's just the tip of the iceberg, Austin said. For 30-plus years, the business churned out a number of employees who went on to culinary careers. Merchants' original baker John Heard opened John's Wheatland Bakery. It was Heard who trained Austin's brother, Mike, who then trained Austin's stepsons Adam and Dustin. All woke up in the twilight hours while the city slept to get a start on the morning's fresh pastries, bagels and breads.
Mike, who ran the business with his brother after his parents retired, was bought out by Bob and his wife, Deb Austin, several years ago when Mike became co-owner of Allegro Cyclery.
But through the ownership changes tradition continued. Austin, never afraid to chase someone out of the business whom he felt had mistreated an employee or dared to cross the threshold with a cup of coffee from a competitor, said it's the little things he'll miss most.
Standing in the doorway, looking out at an empty, darkened street before the bustle of a new morning. The ceremonial walk to the depository at Baker Boyer Bank. Hiring children of former employees.
"The connections have been amazing," said Austin, who plans in the not-too-distant future to return to his first love, agriculture. "I'm going to miss all my friends. I've been saying hello and pouring coffee to some people for 30 years."
He looks forward to the final hurrah on New Year's Eve. "One last night of mopping beer off the floor," he said.
"There was nothing like this when we opened and today there is still nothing like this."