Major makeover in progress for downtown icon

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A myriad of trades people, family and friends help Tom Maccarone work through the finishing interior and exterior touches of pulling Olive together for its grand opening Monday.

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Mirrored by his shadow, Tom Maccarone climbs up and down a ladder painting trim outside Olive during a brief period of sunny weather on Main Street Tuesday afternoon. Papered windows still conceal the view within Olive, formerly Merchant's, as owner Tom Maccarone prepares to open his newest venture Monday.

Olive Marketplace & Cafe looks like it could come straight from an episode of "Extreme Home Makeover" in the few short days before its opening.

Hammers are pounding. A power saw is screeching. Co-owner Tom Maccarone, operating on a scant five hours of sleep, is directing hoards of volunteers, including his mother, Francis, who's on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor in the eastern corner of one of downtown Walla Walla's most iconic buildings at 21 E. Main St. Above her, a list of to-do's is scrawled on butcher paper that covers the window.

"Those things are all done," her son explains. "They just haven't been crossed off."

Almost 35 years ago, his mom was opening her own deli, "That's Italian," just across the street. It's where her son learned about flavors, service and running a business.

Now he and his business partner, Jake Crenshaw, owners of Italian restaurant T. Maccarone's, are in the midst of a massive business expansion with the conversion of Merchants Ltd. into Olive.

"Do you want Spencer to start grouting?" a dark-haired helper asks Maccarone during a tour of the space. "Yes," Maccarone replies. "And Kevin wants to start with the wainscoting. And can someone call Dominoes?"

The hectic pace of construction -- led by contractor Kevin Baker of B3 Construction -- has been going on for two weeks. When it's done, Olive will be a breakfast, lunch and dinner spot with housemade foods from ham and cheese croissants to sandwiches and flatbread pizza. It will have a fresh seafood case. It will offer cheese and meats, wine and beer and handmade pasta. A gathering place for people of all ages with comfy couches and wi-fi.

It won't be everything to everybody, Maccarone says. But it will be many things to most people.

The new operation, expected to quietly open this weekend before an official launch Monday, is personal. Not only to Maccarone and Crenshaw, but to the community.

A staple for more than three decades -- not to mention the one-time competitor of That's Italian -- Merchants became one of Walla Walla's most recognized downtown businesses. It was known for its breakfast and lunch fare, deli case, selection of wines and grocery items, green awning and unorthodox serving system where customers were given playing cards when they ordered their food.

When Maccarone and Crenshaw bought it from a retiring Bob Austin last month, they knew the new Olive would be a different animal.

The structure of the cavernous 5,000-square-foot space hasn't changed. But the function has. And for that matter, so has the "nonfunction."

Where the defunct soda fountain was to the immediate left inside the front door, a new wine retail area has been constructed, accented by a piece of Merchants more recent history: a portion of the new bar area that was crafted by Alan Jones.

The mural of two sweethearts sharing a milkshake has been painted over with the buttery yellow that runs through the space. Sweet potato and chocolatey hues also adorn the walls and columns, tying Olive with T. Maccarone's.

The kitchen has been extended to the center of the main floor with a large counter surrounding. A new raised seating level has been added to the main floor. The upstairs has new sheet rock, recessed lighting and carpet.

In addition to the contractors hired for work, the conversion has been done with the help of tens of volunteers. Aunts, uncles, friends, friends-of-friends, laid-off employees from T. Maccarone's waiting for Olive to open -- they've all put in time.

"There's just a lot of excitement about this," Maccarone said. "Merchants is just a part of Walla Walla and people are excited to have it back."

They are also excited to be part of it. The operation has quickly become a showcase for local workmanship, including Integrity Metal, which will build the railing under the new awning. Graphics will be on the window by MCM Design. A number of local businesses have been bolstered with the excitement of the project. The upstairs furniture was purchased by TV Towne, which made sure all of the items were shipped rapidly. Walla Walla Roastery owner Thomas Reese was in Wednesday to train employees on the espresso machine. A slew of business operators have helped.

That tells Maccarone how important the project is to the community.It's important to him, too.

In the same upstairs corner of Merchants where Austin once served oatmeal to Joan Baez, a young Maccarone used to sit with coffee and a cinnamon roll after his shift at Sporleder's.

"There is a group of people who are true diehard Merchants customers who probably won't be happy," Maccarone acknowledges.

"As much as I don't want to offend them or lose them, I want them to embrace what we did."

On top of that, any lingering concern over the changes can be appeased with a paintbrush in a 20-minute span on the outside of the building. "So many people stop and say they can't wait."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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